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Clarence High School grad helps find reality behind the Jackie Robinson mythology

With “42” and other films about Jackie Robinson, you might think you know everything about the Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodger who broke baseball’s color line.

David McMahon, Clarence High School Class of 1994, is about to help show America otherwise.

McMahon and his wife, Sarah Burns, are the co-writers of the multidimensional four-hour PBS documentary, “Jackie Robinson,” that airs at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on WNED-TV.

The couple also produced and directed the film with PBS superstar Ken Burns, Sarah’s father, of “The Civil War,” “Jazz” and “Baseball” fame.

Narrated by actor Keith David, “Jackie Robinson” follows the Burns’ blueprint of using historical footage and photographs, and interviews with historians, sportswriters, players and family members.

It also has actor Jamie Foxx reading Robinson’s words, a magical musical soundtrack from jazz greats and an interview with another historic African-American figure, President Obama, and his wife, Michelle.

With the participation of Robinson’s widow, Rachel, the film has romantic elements. But it doesn’t romanticize the ugly things that Robinson had to deal with before he became an American hero and most valuable player in baseball who at one time was only behind Bing Crosby in a poll of most popular Americans.

As in Burns’ “Baseball,” the film naturally deals with Robinson’s breaking of major league baseball’s color barrier as a Dodger in 1947.

There is enough file footage of games to satisfy any baseball fan. But the film also documents Robinson’s struggles with finding his place in the civil rights movement after his retirement, and the political development in the 1960s that led African-Americans to leave the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln and become Democrats.

The film also questions one huge myth and reveals a surprising relationship between the Robinsons and singer Carly Simon.

Touching all those bases, it hits a home run and tells far more about Robinson than “42,” “Baseball” or any movie about him.

“We were elated about how well ‘42’ did,” said McMahon. “But it only focused on a narrow slice of his life, which a lot of the stuff in TV and film has. We felt there was a big opening for us to do something comprehensive.”

And myth-breaking. Take the story that Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson during a game in Cincinnati to show his support in the face of the racism Robinson experienced.

“There is no evidence in any of the papers at that time that it happened,” said McMahon. “The interesting question to us is why do we need to feel like this moment happened? What is it serving, this myth, if it didn’t really happen? That is what we really wanted to explore more.”

McMahon added that Robinson wrote an article in 1949 that Reese was supportive in Boston when some Braves players gave Robinson a hard time.

“If that’s what gave birth to this myth, it is a far cry of what is portrayed in the movie and the story that we’ve been telling for a long time,” said McMahon. “It kind of does a disservice to Jackie. It kind of suggests he needed Reese there to support him. Nobody was really there to support Robinson very much in his first year on the field. He did it kind of on his own. We needed a buddy story and we need a white savior to make us feel better about race relations in our country.”

The 2008 election of President Obama made America feel better about itself as well for a while. McMahon said the Obamas, who were interviewed for 15 minutes in 2013, were uniquely qualified to speak about Robinson’s experience.

“It was about the richest 15 minutes of any interview I’ve ever been a part of in terms of how much they said could be used in the film,” said McMahon.

“I think the great thing about their presence in the film it seems there are very few people who could maybe understand what it is like to be the first that Jackie and Rachel, in a very important supportive role, were. A lot of that interview is exchanged between the two of them is in body language. They were holding hands the whole time.”

With obvious applications to the Obamas, the first lady said Jackie needed a supportive wife to get through his difficult experiences.

“It is an unscripted moment of humor when he smiles and nods,” said McMahon. “It is a really a wonderful candid, sweet moment.”

There is another sweet moment involving Carly Simon. While the Robinsons were building a home in a mostly white neighborhood in Connecticut, Simon’s parents gave the Robinsons their summer home. McMahon said Jackie taught a young Carly, “a huge baseball fan,” how to swing a bat.

“She used to sit in the back seat of Robinson’s car and go to the games and hang out in the dugout,” said McMahon.

He added that in his research, he found a telegram from Simon when she was about 10 years old congratulating Robinson after the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series.

To illustrate Robinson’s political side post-career, there is footage of him coming to Buffalo’s East Side as a member of the Republican administration of Nelson Rockefeller during some troubled times.

McMahon said the film’s goal is to go beyond the portrait of Robinson as someone who turned the other cheek for Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey to pave the way for others and instead illustrate how he evolved into someone who spoke his mind politically and constantly “called people on slights and indignities he saw everywhere.”

“That’s a much more interesting version of Jackie Robinson and one who I think is a lot more to learn from,” said McMahon.

Viewers following this presidential season also will be reminded how the political parties were transformed when the Republican Party dismissed the importance of African-American votes in 1964 after conservative Barry Goldwater became its presidential nominee.

“We wanted to show in 1964 that the party had become a hostile place for people of color,” explained McMahon. “We wanted to show that transition. As we are watching Trump game things out, and the Republican party game things out sort of in real time in front of us, that was a calculated maneuver by the Republicans behind Goldwater to say we’re not going to court African-American votes and we’re going to go to a disaffected South and we’re going to transform the map.

“Robinson saw this and hollered and shouted and went to the convention and got as many African-Americans and others behind them.”

To read more about David McMahon and his connection to Ken Burns, visit talkintv.buffalonews.com/ email: apergament@buffnews.com