Ken Burns’ Latest PBS Presentation Is The “Champion” Of Phil’s Picks’ 2016 Top 10 New Documentaries List

Courtesy:  PBS/PBS Distribution

Courtesy: PBS/PBS Distribution

2016 was another great year for documentaries.  From ancient kings to movie magic kings and much more, the field of documentaries had plenty to offer audiences.  Believe it or not PBS showed again with its offerings why it remains the king of the documentary field and why it is the last true bastion of truly worthwhile programming on television.  It wasn’t the only outlet that offered quality documentaries this year, though.  Virgil Films and MVD Visual both had some stand out offerings, too.  Their films are included in this critic’s list of the year’s best new documentaries.

Topping this year’s list of the year’s top new documentaries is Ken Burns’ new profile of MLB great Jackie Robinson.  It isn’t the first of its kind by any means.  But it is one of the most in-depth profiles of the baseball legend.  Also included in this year’s list is a profile of another legend in his own right, Ray Harryhausen from MVD Visual in the form of Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.  It isn’t the first of its kind, either. But its story, interviews, footage, information and editing all combine to make this presentation stand out.  There is even a pair of documentaries on the “timeless” cinema classic Back to the Future included in this list.

As with each of Phil’s Picks “Best Of” lists, this list features this critic’s top 10 choices in the given category along with five honorable mention titles for a total of 15 titles.  So without any further ado, here for you is Phil’s Picks’ 2016 Top 10 New Documentaries




  1. Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson


  1. American Experience: Space Men


  1. American Experience: Tesla


  1. Nature: Natural Born Hustlers


  1. Secrets of the Dead: Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb


  1. Secrets of the Dead: Teotihuacan’s Lost Kings


  1. Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan


  1. American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde


  1. Nature: Super Hummingbirds


  1. Nature: Moose Life of a Twig Eater


  1. NOVA: Vikings Unearthed


  1. OUTATIME: Saving The DeLorean Time Machine


  1. Back in Time


  1. Building Star Trek


  1. Zydeco Crossroads: A Tale of Two Cities


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Ken Burns, PBS Hit A Home Run With New Jackie Robinson Retrospective

Courtesy:  PBS/PBS Distribution

Courtesy: PBS/PBS Distribution

Sixty-nine years ago this year Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to join the ranks of Major League Baseball.  When he first signed on with the then Brooklyn Dodgers he did more than just break down a color barrier.  He became an important catalyst for change in America.  He opened the door for countless other African-American baseball players.  He also served as an example for so many civil rights activists around the nation.  He was Rocky before there was Rocky.  He was Atlas on Earth.  In the decades since he first picked up bat and ball, no fewer than two big screen features have been crafted about him, the most recent being 2013’s 42.  Major League Baseball even stops to honor his legacy every year on what has become known as “Jackie Robinson Day.”  Any number of documentaries has been produced about him and his legacy, too.  The thing is that few have ever focused on anything more than his career on the field.  Enter documentarian Ken Burns and his new Robinson retrospective, simply titled Jackie Robinson.  The four-hour presentation is not the first on which Burns has partnered with PBS.  He has also produced documentaries on the history of baseball in America, Jazz, and perhaps his most well-known documentary, The Civil War.  This production is no less enjoyable than his previous offerings.  As a matter of fact it is more proof of why Burns is one of the leading names in his field and why PBS still stands today the last bastion of truly worthwhile programming on television.  Its story is the main element in supporting both arguments.  That will be discussed shortly.  The elements that were used to help advance the story are just as important to note.  That will be discussed later.  The bonus material that is included with the program in its new home release round out the program’s presentation.  Each element proves clearly important in its own way to the program.  Altogether they make Jackie Robinson one of the year’s best new sports documentaries and one of the year’s top new overall documentaries.

Ken Burns’ new documentary centering on legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson is one of this year’s best new sports documentaries and one of the year’s best new overall documentaries, too.  It is more proof as to why Burns is one of the leaders in his field.  In the same vein, it is also more proof as to why PBS still stands today as the last bastion of truly worthwhile programming on television.  The program’s central story proves both arguments.  Unlike so many Robinson retrospectives that have come before, this presentation focuses on more than just Robinson’s on-field impact.  Yes, that is there.  But it also focuses on Robinson’s lifeafter baseball.  That portion of the program is just as eye-opening as the rest of the presentation.  Audiences will be surprised to learn that after leaving baseball, Robinson had quite the career change.  He transitioned into the private sector, joining the coffee company Chock Full O’ Nuts.  He also became quite active in the political realm, even shocking many as a supporter of Richard Nixon.  That discussion is one of the program’s most intriguing considering Nixon’s record on civil rights.  Though, interestingly enough, it is also revealed that JFK wasn’t exactly a supporter of civil rights early on, either.  This is just a tiny portion of what makes the program’s story so enthralling.  The story of his career and impact on the field is just as in-depth as the story of his life away from the ball field.
The story of Robinson’s life off the field is in itself very enlightening.  It displays a part of Robinson’s life that is rarely if ever discussed by other documentaries.  It is just part of what makes hits program’s story so engaging.  The story of Robinson’s career and impact on the field is just as important to the story’s whole as its second half.  Most audiences know Robinson from his days as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  But as audiences learn in the first half of the documentary, his time with the Dodgers wasn’t his first professional baseball experience.  He started in the Negro League before moving on to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ then top AAA team.  In other words, it shows that Robinson’s time in the spotlight might have started in 1947, but his impact was being made felt long before then.  William Branch Rickey’s support of Robinson is equally powerful to note.  Viewers will be interested to learn here of the close relationship between the pair.  It was more mentor/student than owner/player.  There was a reason that Rickey only let Robinson speak his mind after had had truly established himself.  He wasn’t trying to make Robinson a “good black man.”  Rather, he was helping Robinson prove himself to the country.  Because of that, Robinson did indeed change people’s views, essentially—again—making himself Rocky decades before there was Rocky.  Both the story of Robinson’s life and career on the field and off are important in their own right to the story of Jackie Robinson.  Collectively, they show the program’s central story is key to the program’s presentation.  They are only a portion of what makes the story in whole so engaging.  The elements that were used to tell the story are just as important to note in the story’s success.

The story at the heart of Ken Burns’ new Jackie Robinson documentary in itself shows why it is a wholly engaging piece for history buffs and baseball history buffs alike.  That is because it presents not just Robinson’s career and impact on the field, but off of the field, too.  As engaging as the story is in itself, the elements that were used to help tell Robinson’s story are just as important to note as his story.  The elements in question involve vintage footage from Robinson’s playing days and his post-baseball life and photos that are just as old.  Most important to note are the interviews that are used to help illustrate Robinson’s story.  Burns interviewed a number of academics and sports writers to help make clear the importance of Robinson’s accomplishments and other things that he did both on and off the field.  He also interviewed a number of Robinson’s former teammates, his widow, and his daughter in connection with the story.  The first-hand accounts that are shared by all involved make even richer the profile of Robinson painted by the story.  They make Robinson even more of a sympathetic figure.  That is because they collectively show the odds that he faced not just from whites but eventually even other African-Americans.  That included not only his fellow ball players but fans and other members of the African-American community.  Despite people’s view of him he still stood his ground and stood for what he believed in.  Hearing those stories from those that knew him best serves to make the overall picture painted in this program all the richer and more valuable both for history buffs and baseball history buffs.  It’s just one more way in which Jackie Robinson proves itself to be one of the year’s best new sports documentaries and best new documentaries overall.  It still is not the last way in which this presentation proves itself so entertaining and engaging.  The bonus material that is included in the program is just as valuable to the program as its story and the elements that advance the story.

The story at the center of Jackie Robinson and the elements used to advance the story are both important in their own right to the whole of this documentary.  While both are equally important in keeping audiences engaged and entertained, they are not the program’s only important elements.  Now that Jackie Robinson is available on DVD and Blu-ray it also includes a small handful of bonus features.  Audiences get a glimpse into an inner city baseball team known as The Anderson Monarchs in one of those features.  The team is made up largely of African American youths.  The team members discuss the relation of the team’s name to Robinson’s own history.  One of the team’s members—Mon’e Davis—will be very familiar to many viewers.  She discusses being the only female on the team and how that related to Robinson being the only African-American on his team originally.  This is just one of the bonuses included in Jackie Robinson’s home release.  There are also some little outtakes to enjoy and the most important of the program’s bonuses, “A conversation with the filmmakers.”  This program features discussions with Ken Burns and others who worked on Jackie Robinson.  Burns and company share their thoughts on the importance of making this documentary in this feature as well as what Robinson’s accomplishments mean to them personally.  Most notable of the comments shared throughout this feature is the sentiment that Robinson’s widow and daughter had to be included in the presentation.  Every person interviewed noted that it would be wrong to not include her.  Looking back on the program audiences will find themselves agreeing with that sentiment.  She shares some of the deepest insight of anyone interviewed for the end product.  All in all the discussions that are shared in the “conversation with the filmmakers” offer just as much insight and interest to Jackie Robinson as its central story and the elements that advance and illustrate that story.  All things considered, the documentary proves in the end to be more proof of why Ken Burns is one of the leaders in his field.  They also serve to make this documentary more proof of why PBS is the last bastion of truly worthwhile programming on television today.

Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson is one of this year’s best new sports documentaries and one of the year’s best new documentaries overall.  It shows once again why Ken Burns is one of the leading names in his field and why PBS is the last bastion of truly worthwhile programming on television.  That is because it paints a picture through its story that far outshines the biopics and other documentaries centered on his life and career.  The elements that are used to illustrate and advance the story help solidify that argument, too.  They include first-hand interviews with those closest to Robinson during his life and those that have quite a deep knowledge of him.  The bonus material that has been included in the program’s home release rounds out the program’s overall presentation.  It shows in its own way to be just as important as the program’s story and related elements.  By itself, each element proves to be hugely important to Jackie Robinson’s presentation.  Altogether they show why every history buff and sports history buff should see this most in-depth Robinson retrospective to date.  It is available now on DVD and Blu-ray and can be ordered online direct via PBS’ online store at  More on this and other titles from PBS is available online now at:








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PBS To Release New Ken Burns Documentary This Spring

Courtesy:  PBS/PBS Distribution

Courtesy: PBS/PBS Distribution

This spring PBS and PBS Distribution will release a brand new documentary from acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns.

PBS and PBS Distribution will release Ken Burns’ new documentary Jackie Robinson this spring. The four-hour documentary will be released on April 15th. The timing of the double-disc set, which will be presented both on DVD and Blu-ray, is wholly intentional as it will coincide with Jackie Robinson Day. It follows the life and career of the famed baseball star and the impact that he had both on the diamond and off. That impact is highlighted through discussions from the likes of famed newsman Tom Brokaw, singers Carly Simon and Harry Belafonte, and even President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama among others.

Jackie Robinson is not the first time that Burns has delved in to the baseball world having helmed his documentary Baseball in 1994. In discussing the film Burns explained that the film came from a desire to focus more closely on Robinson after having helmed that docu-series. “Jackie Robinson is the most important figure in our nation’s most important game,” he said. “He gave us our first lasting progress in civil rights since the Civil War and, ever since I finished my BASEBALL series in 1994, I’ve been eager to make a stand-alone film about the life of this courageous American. There was so much more to say not only about Robinson’s barrier-breaking moment in 1947, but about how his upbringing shaped his intolerance for any form of discrimination and how after his baseball career, he spoke out tirelessly against racial injustice, even after his star had begun to dim.”  Audiences can hear Burns discuss his new film at more length in an interview on CBS’ Face The Nation via YouTube at

Jackie Robinson was co-directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. It will be available on Tuesday, April 15th and will be released both on DVD and Blu-ray. The program’s double-disc DVD presentation will retail for MSRP of $24.99 and the double-disc Blu-ray presentation for $29.99. It will also be available in a number of combo packages, from which audiences can choose online and pre-order at More information on this and other titles from PBS is available online now at:



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Letters From Jackie Another Great Story Of One Of Baseball’s Greats

Courtesy:  A&E Home Video/MLB Productions

Courtesy: A&E Home Video/MLB Productions

Major League Baseball celebrated a very special anniversary early in 2013.  On April 15th, 2013, fans and players of America’s Past Time celebrated the sixty-sixth anniversary of Brooklyn Dodgers great and groundbreaking player Jackie Robinson’s very first ever major league game.  It was on April 15th, 1947 that Robinson broke the color barrier and became the first ever African-American to play major league baseball.  Every year since that day, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson day on the anniversary of his first game.  This year, the anniversary has been celebrated with more than just celebrations at baseball fields across the country.  It was also celebrated with a major motion picture focusing on Robinson’s life and a documentary from Shout! Factory that was even more enjoyable than the prior.  Now MLB Productions has joined in the celebration with its own documentary on Robinson.  Whereas the previous releases focused largely on Robinson’s life, this latest release, Letters From Jackie: The Private Thoughts of Jackie Robinson focuses exactly on its title; Robinson’s own thoughts put to paper.

Letters From Jackie: The Private Thoughts of Jackie Robinson is a good companion piece to the previously released pair of works from Warner Brothers and Shout! Factory.  The first thing that makes this documentary stand out is its run time.  It comes in at just forty-five minutes long.  This is not counting the end credits, either.  Within that short time-span, the story presented moves at a relatively fast pace.  It’s not too fast for viewers to keep up with the story, either.  And within the context of the production, viewers will be moved to both laughter and tears, hearing Robinson’s words read.

The letters written by Jackie Robinson are both moving and at times entertaining.  Most moving of all is the story of Robinson’s years-long communications with a young white fan, Ron Rabinovitz.  The pen pals’ ongoing letter writing led to a friendship that transcended skin color and even religious backgrounds.  It was a friendship based solely on two individuals’ love of the game of baseball.  Rabinovitz himself even gets to share his thoughts on the letters shared between himself and Robinson.  The fondness with which he remembers Robinson is both entertaining and moving.  Audiences will be brought to smiles hearing Rabinovitz discuss Robinson actually taking him into the Dodgers’ locker room to meet his team mates at the time.  He even presents the baseball signed by Robinson’s team mates.  The really funny moment of that story is when Rabinovitz reveals that Robinson was so caught up in introducing his team mates to Rabinovitz and getting them to sign the ball, that he forgot to sign the ball himself.  Rabinovitz adds, laughing that he didn’t mind because he had so many other items (noting the letters) signed by Robinson.  Viewers even get to see Rabinovitz sharing his memories with one of today’s greats at the 2013 Jackie Robinson Day pre-game.

Rabinovitz shares so many wonderful memories of one of baseball’s greatest names though his interviews.  Along with the stories are pictures of the pair posing together on the field.  They help to add even more interest to the story of Robinson’s own thoughts on how he was viewed during his career.  Those pictures aren’t the only ones shared throughout this near hour-long feature.  Those charged with bringing the program to life also incorporated footage from The Jackie Robinson Story as well as footage from games that he played during his career.  The footage shows both the good and bad of the people who came to the games to see Robinson play.  That footage set against Robinson’s own thoughts on fan support and the lack thereof makes these moments even more interesting for any real baseball history buff.

Whether for the stories shared of Robinson by his family and friends or for the footage of the baseball legend’s career, baseball fans have plenty for which to root in this companion piece to the year’s previously released Robinson tributes.  Audiences will of course find their own interesting and entertaining moments throughout the story.  Being that Major League Baseball is coming up to the annual celebration of the halfway point of its season, thoughts will go back to one of the original All-Stars.  And as thoughts go back to him, this latest story will make for another good look back at that legend in question.  It will be available next Tuesday, July 16th.  It can be ordered online at the MLB Productions store at

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