The movies have often tried to immortalize black athletes, from Coley Wallace’s portrayal of Joe Louis in 1953 to Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali in 2001. But a couple of times in the race-movie years, the stars played film-friendly versions of themselves. Henry Armstrong, the only boxer in history to hold three titles simultaneously (featherweight, lightweight and middleweight), headlined 1939’s Keep Punching. And Robinson, the first Negro to be allowed to play major league baseball in the 20th century, reprised his saga on screen.
The Jackie Robinson Story was made in the winter of 1949-50, just after Robinson won the National League batting title and was named Most Valuable Player. The movie was directed by Alfred E. Green, an early-talkies veteran who helmed one of the biggest hits of the 40s, The Jolson Story, with Larry Parks as the Jewish showman who performed in blackface. Robinson needed quiet fortitude to endure the racist taunts of fans and rival players, and that soft-spoken steel is evident in the film. His wife Rae is played by the young Ruby Dee, a mere 58 years before she won her first Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s mother in American Gangster.
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