The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990)
Director: Larry Peerce.
Starring: Andre Braugher (Jackie Robinson), Daniel Stern (William Cline), Ruby Dee (Jackie's mother), Stan Shaw (Joe Louis), Paul Dooley, Kasi Lemmons (Rachel), J.A. Preston (Wendell Smith), Michael Greene, Dale Dye, Steven Williams (Satchel Paige), Noble Willingham, Gary Grubbs, Bruce Dern (Scout Ed Higgins), Don Hood (Maj. Foley), Howard French (Sgt. McEllroy).
While in the army, future ball playing hero Jackie Robinson refuses to move to a seat at the back of an Army bus. He is, of course, court-martialed for insubordination.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Reporter Wendell Smith is writing an article about the young UCLA baseball player Jackie Robinson. He is an all-around star: baseball, football, basketball and track. Jackie is playing baseball with his girlfriend Rachel in the stands cheering him on. Wendell Smith comes over to talk with Rachel. He talks to her about Robinson and she tells him she is his girlfriend. Jackie comes over and Rachel introduces him to the sportswriter.
Mr. Smith tells Jackie and Rachel that he came all the way out here to take a look at Jackie and his brother Mac. Smith already knows Mac, who won a medal in the Berlin Olympics.
Jackie tells Rachel that he has decided to drop out of UCLA. He says they may have a coaching job coming up. Rachel is very opposed to the idea of him dropping out. Jackie says his brother is a college graduate and an Olympic Games star and yet he is working as a street sweeper. Jackie emphasizes that he wants to make some money to help out his poor mother who is exhausted by working. After arguing just a little, they kiss.
Rachel and Jackie are at Sunday dinner with Jackie's mother and brother. Mom is furious when Jackie tells her he is dropping out. She says she didn't work this hard just so Jackie could be a drop-out. As she argues with her son, the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, comes over the radio. Everyone is shocked over the news.
At UCLA Jackie talks with Rachel. He is going to stay in school. He also tells her that he loves her. In fact, he has an engagement ring for her. When she says yes, Jackie jumps up and yells for joy. He goes home and his brother says he has a letter for him. Jackie thinks it's something about a job, but it actually is a draft notice. He has 30 days to report. Jackie can't graduate now. But he tells Rachel that they will marry when the war is over. She cries over the thought of his absence from her.
Camp Riley, Kansas, 1942. Jackie gets off the bus with a load of young white and black men. The two races are separated by the drill sergeant. In the barracks, Jackie tells his cot neighbor that when basic is over, he is applying for Officer Candidate School OCS).
After basic, Jackie walks into the office of his commanding officer, Col. Ash, to ask him why is there a delay in his application for OCS. Robinson asks the officer to investigate. The man answers: "I could, but I won't. . . . You deaf or are you merely slow, Robinson. You listen up, soldier. I know there are negro officers, but I am not about to advance that cause to which I heartily disapprove." Jackie is very tough and direct with the officer, saying that he requests permission to contact the war office on his own behalf. This makes the officer madder and he says: "You're not going over my head." Jackie is dismissed.
Jackie is upset about the incident. He bumps into another soldier and is about to hit him, when the fellow grabs his arm and tells him. "I don't think I'm the man you want to punch." The reason is that he other soldier is Cpl. Joe Louis, heavy weight champion of the world. Jackie recognizes the champ. He tells Joe his name and Louis recognizes the name. He has read about Jackie's athletic achievements at UCLA. Joe will be fighting exhibition matches for the Army. Jackie tells Joe about his problems with being blocked from OCS and Joe, with all his contacts, says he knows just the man who can help Jackie.
Truman Gibson, Special Advisor on Negro Affairs to the Sec. of War, Jackie and Joe all go in to pay a visit to Col. Ash. Gibson has evidence that the colonel is both prejudiced and discriminatory to negroes. He has turned down every black application to OCS. Joe speaks up and says he has been fighting a lot of fights for the Army and given the money to Army charities. He says he won't continue doing this, if the colonel is going to hamstring negro applicants for advancement. The colonel says he understands what they are telling him.
Ed Higgins and another scout, Willie Bailey, talk together. They both work for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Branch Rickey. Higgins is a bit of a redneck bigot referring to a black man as a coon. Wendell Smith says hello to Bailey. Bailey introduces him to Higgins. Smith asks about bringing blacks into the major leagues, but Higgins says that the major leagues are not ready for the negroes. Bailey disagrees with him.
Jackie has become an officer. He gets a lot of strange looks from the white men in the office where Jackie works. Jackie is the new moral officer for the black troops. He goes into a barracks and asks the troops if they have any problems. Yes, they do. The PX (postal exchange) is always crowded and segregated and the black area is very small and the men have to wait for a seat. The men are discouraged by the conduct of the Army, but Robinson tells them to start believing in themselves. He says they can only get self-respect from themselves. They certainly won't get it from the army.
Robinson telephones the major in charge of the PX and he asks him is racial policy in the army is really policy or just social custom? The major asks Robinson, not knowing he is black: "Well, how would you like your wife sitting next to some nigger?" Robinson says he wants to continue the discussion face to face. He is soon in front of the major at his desk. The major looks up and gets a shock. Robinson is black. The major says he is not laughing about this. Again Robinson comes on way too strong with another superior officer. He says the morale is low among the negro troops. The major answers that if he ends segregation in the PX, it may upset the white troops. He tells Robinson not to get mixed up in this matter any more. Robinson is dismissed.
Robinson goes to see Colonel Ravenson, who tells him that what the Provost Marshal said to him is not acceptable and he is willing to put that in writing. The colonel will pursue the matter with the post commander and, if he doesn't get his support, he will go up to corps. Ravenson's son plays on the army football team and the colonel sure wants Robinson to play halfback for the team. After finding out that there will be no color restrictions on the team, Robinson says he will be glad to play. The colonel is very happy. Just before Robinson leaves, the colonel says he's on Robinson's side, but tells him to exercise a little bit more judgment when he talks to "these people". Robinson is a taken back a bit.
Robinson is discouraged and Joe Louis tells him to buck up because things will change and one day that day will arrive. Joe says he takes a lot of verbal harassment from the white troops when he's in the ring. Robinson asks him how does he deal with it? Joe says: "Lt. Robinson, I hit 'em first, faster and harder."
Some idiot soldier tries to force a black man to move out of his seat, even though the fellow is sitting in the colored section. This almost starts a riot between the white and black troops. Joe Louis steps in and puts a stop to the commotion. Jackie tells Joe that things just don't change. Joe responds that even though Jackie is an officer and a gentleman, he can't just walk into the white club. Jackie says: "Not yet!"
Wendell Smith writes an article condemning the color line in major league baseball. The football coach comes to Robinson to tell him that he can't play this coming game, because the town has strong segregation rules. If Jackie cooperates without a fuss, he will receive a two week leave of absence from the Army. Jackie takes the leave. His mother is so happy to see him. He looks good in his army uniform. Later Jackie goes to see Rachel. She is in uniform as she is a cadet corps to get a little extra money. Jackie doesn't like this. He doesn't want her around a bunch of men. He says the men think that she is a whore. Rachel gets so angry and upset that she gives Robinson back his ring.
When his mother finds out, she is furious with her son. She says she knows for sure that Rachel loves him. She says: "I didn't raise my boys to have sharecropper minds." She says both her and Ray are not the type of women who will take that from their men. Later mom brings Ray to the house. She leaves the couple alone and they soon start laughing and making up. Jackie tells her he doesn't care if she is still in the cadet corps. He just wants her.
Scouts Willie and Ed are watching the blacks play ball. Ed says he knows the blacks can play ball, but the problem is, who wants to watch them? He calls them coons again and says you can't tell them apart, but they sure as hell can play ball.
Robinson quits the football team, because the coach can't guarantee that the segregation thing won't happen again. He speaks with the Colonel who warns Jackie that he will take this personally. Jackie stands his ground and is dismissed. Jackie goes to see Joe. He has been transferred to Camp Hood, Texas. Joe says Texas is a nasty place for blacks. He advises Jackie not to lose his temper down there and watch what he says with that big mouth of his.
Camp Hood, Texas, 1944. Wendell Smith writes about Camp Hood, Texas. He says it's the hell-hole of the South and Jim Crow segregation reigns supreme. Robinson reports in to the officer of the day. He reads in his files that he is a trouble-maker. He puts Jackie in command of a black tank group.
Jackie runs into his pal Gordie from OCS. He in turn introduces Jackie to his wife Loretta, who looks white. Gordie warns Jackie not to go into the officer's club. The blacks have their own separate club down the road a ways.
Robinson appears before his men. He says that they are going to war and he wants each man to teach him as much as he can, so that when they do get into battle, their lieutenant won't get them killed. He says in combat they will hit the enemy first, fastest and hardest. Robinson trains his men well. The commanding officer is impressed by Robinson. The major tells Jackie that he thinks he is going to make a "crackerjack leader". And if anyone screws with him, he wants Robinson to come see him. He reminds Jackie: "This is Texas, Lt. Robinson. Lots of folks down here don't harbor any love for people of the colored persuasion." But, as for him, the major says, he cares for every damn one of his men.
Jackie escorts Loretta home. They take the bus. Loretta and Jackie sit together, but not quite in the back of the bus. The driver thinks Loretta is white. Soon the driver yells for Jackie to move to the back of the bus with the other coloreds. Jackie says to Loretta: "ignore him'. The driver stops the bus and goes back to confront Jackie telling him to get to the back of the bus. Jackie tells the driver to go back and drive the bus and he (Jackie) will sit wherever he pleases. He says regulations forbid any segregation on any army transportation. Jackie refuses to cooperate. The driver goes back to drive the bus, saying he's going to teach this nigger a lesson. When the bus arrives, the driver rushes into the building to get help. The man starts yelling at Jackie and Jackie tells the man to keep his hands off him.
The military police intervene. They take Jackie to see the duty officer. The officers are soon harassing Jackie, calling him a nigger. One MP calls Jackie "boy" and Jackie says it's "lieutenant". Another MP at the door of headquarters asks: "Is this the nigger lieutenant?" He calls Jackie Mr. Nigger and says he's in big, big trouble. Jackie gets right in the face of the MP and tells him: "Call me a nigger again and I'll break you in two." The MP backs down. He tells the captain he has the nigger lieutenant outside.
And the lying begins. Sgt. McElroy says that Robinson insulted him to his face. And the captain always sides with the MPs. McElroy goes on to say that Robinson threatened to kill him. The captain says that Robinson is now under arrest. Then the captain calls in the assistant provost marshal. He tells him in private that they've got an uppity nigger here. They let Jackie tell his story, while a white woman takes down his statement. She keeps interrupting Jackie to tell him he was doing wrong. When Jackie challenges her right to interrupt him, the men side with the white woman who says that she's not going to be sassed by a nigger. The assistant provost marshal says he is not going to have his patience strained by some uppity nigger. Jackie gets furious now and the officer concludes the interview. Jackie is excused.
Jackie is driven to see his commanding officer. Foley says they are asking for a general court-martial for Robinson. Robinson can't believe it. Foley wants to transfer Robinson to another tank outfit and send him overseas before the charges can lead to a trial.
Jackie and and the commanding officer talk again. The major has refused to sign Jackie's transfer to the 758th. So the the other officers just end rau the major by finding a good ol' boy -- the commanding officer of the 758th. He signed the document. The charges are insubordination, disturbing the peace, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer. He tells Robinson to defend himself in a general court-martial. He advises him to dig in his heels and defend his position.
Jackie calls Wendell Smith. He wants his help. Wendell starts writing the story about Jackie and the court-martial. Jackie gets a lawyer, but the major doesn't want to help Jackie. He's a good ol' boy from from Louisiana and supports segregation. He tells Jackie he won't be of any use to him. Jackie says that's precisely the reason the major was appointed to be his lawyer. Robinson catches flack from the other black officers, saying that Jackie is making it harder for them. They warn him that he is going to get a dishonorable discharge.
Jackie is out hitting balls. White officer Bill Clein comes over to see Jackie. He says he's his newly appointed lawyer. Robinson is rude the the man. Clein says: "Hey, I like to screw with them as much as they like to screw with you. Now, are you in?" Jackie smiles and says he's in. The charges against Jackie are shortened only to insubordination and refusal to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer. Clein still thinks they can win.
Willie and Ed learn about Robinson and his trial. Willy wants Ed to pop down to Texas to check out the situation and take a look at Robinson.
The trial proceeds. Clein says that the charges in this case should read "overt discrimination, disrespect to an officer, unlawful detention and harassment." He says the charges in the court are ludicrous. The captain on duty that day says that Robinson kept on making fun of them. Clein tries to show that the captain is filled with prejudice, but the judge stops him. Talking to Robinson in private, Clein says he's trying to get the witnesses to admit that they called Robinson a nigger. That would then destroy their credibility.
Jackie calls Rachel to talk to her. He says he misses her and he loves her.
Clein puts Jackie on the stand and Jackie says Sgt. McElroy was just a liar and that Captain Spencer never allowed him to tell his side of the event. Another captain was called in and then he was allowed to make a statement, but he was constantly interrupted by a white stenographer. McElroy called him nigger lieutenant. Ed comes down and greets Wendell Smith and Joe Louis. On the stand Robinson's commanding officer praises Robinson. McElroy denies that he called Robinson the nigger lieutenant. He says Robinson told him that if he called him a nigger again, he would break him in two. Clein rightly points out that McElroy said "again" meaning that McElroy had already called him a nigger once. Then Clein puts another MP on the stand. He asks him what did Sgt. McElroy says regarding Lt. Robinson. The MP says that McElroy referred to Robinson as the nigger lieutenant.
Robinson is found not guilty on both counts. Jackie happily tells Wendell and Joe that he has been acquitted. The two men are happy for him. Robinson now says he is going to resign his commission. Joe asks him to reconsider, but Robinson tells him that the whites will never let him be a member of their club. They are now conspiring to destroy him. Ed comes by and is introduced to Robinson. Ed congratulates Jackie. He also says that he is scouting for ballplayers. Ed says big changes are coming after the war. Jackie asks what is he going to do in the meantime. Ed says play ball and keep clean. Clein comes over and Jackie introduces him to Wendell Smith and Joe Louis.
Jackie is on the bus carrying the black players. He talks with the
famous pitcher Satchel Paige. They get off at the ball field where they
will be playing. Ed and Wendell are both there. Happy VE day! they
say to Jackie and Satchel. Ed tells Jackie indirectly that he's going to
be playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A little later Jackie goes into the
Monarchs' locker. He looks at a photo of his mother and tells her:
"I'm going to do it."
"In 1947 Jack Roosevelt Robinson became the first black man to play major league baseball, and in 1982 was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He devoted the rest of his life to the civil rights movement and the equality of all men. President Harry S. Truman signed an Executive order on July 26, 1948 prohibiting racial segregation in the Armed Forces. Today, the Army is considered one of the most integrated organizations in the United States."
Good movie. It really illustrates the depth of the virulent racism in the white men's hearts towards the blacks. They called him all kinds of really nasty things and harassed him a great deal. Then when Jackie protests and has to go before a court martial hearing, the whites lie through their teeth saying they did not call him the nigger lieutenant. Finally, one brave white fellow tells the truth about the harassment and the momentum of the court swings now onto Jackie's side. Andre Braugher was very good as Jackie. He didn't look much like a major league athlete, but he certainly portrayed Jackie's outrage and righteous indignation against the racial slights thrown at him by white racists. I also thought Daniel Stern (as William Cline) was very good and very funny. And Bruce Dern (as Scout Ed Higgins) did a good portrayal of a white racist who was still salvageable.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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