‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new movie 42 about Jackie Robinson is strong, interesting, and one that provides a fabulous history lesson about our recent past. There have been two transformative players in baseball history. Babe Ruth’s talent turned the game into the “national pastime,” and Robinson’s courage made it into the national pastime for all Americans.
At the end of World War II, America owed a debt to African-Americans. Many (including Robinson) had served in the military. But some Americans were unwilling to grant them the right to the “pursuit of happiness.” Baseball was just one example; there was a separate Negro League for black players. Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to change that and chose Robinson because he thought the man was tough enough to withstand the abuse he would face.
The movie pulls no punches on the abuse. Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) was threatened regularly. A whole group of Dodgers even petitioned Rickey to keep him off of the team. Robinson was booed regularly by crowds, was forced by one Florida sheriff to get off the field and had to hide in the back of a reporter’s car to escape a possible lynch mob.
Two scenes stick in my mind: Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie), Jackie’s wife, faced the segregated bathrooms of the South by walking into the one for white women, and an airport attendant put white people on the plane in their place and then sweetly told Mrs. Robinson that if she didn’t like it, she could call the town’s sheriff to complain. A second racial confrontation came when Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) provided one of the nastiest racist commentaries on Robinson as he came up to the plate several times during the game. The language is vile; there are no holds barred, and it works brilliantly. The blatant racism of the time clearly shows through.
Robinson, as most of us know, triumphed in the end. He was Rookie of the Year in the National League in 1947 and eventually won the World Series (1955) over the Yankees. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (as was Branch Rickey) and is the only player in major league history whose number (42, of course) has been retired by every team as recognition of his contribution. Only one player still wears 42, Mariano Rivera (although players wearing Robinson’s number in 1997 when it was retired were allowed to keep it), and Rachel Robinson has given her blessing to his continuing to wear it. During April, teams have Jackie Robinson Appreciation Day, and all players wear his number.
Boseman gives a strong, charismatic performance as Robinson. Ironically, the one image he is competing against was Robinson himself, who starred in a low-budget, rather vanilla movie back in 1950. Boseman comes across as strong and somewhat conflicted because of the abuse. Ford gives an excellent supporting performance as Rickey, a man who claims he is integrating the game because he thinks it will be good for business while actually dealing with long-buried guilt about a young black man destroyed by racism whom he regretted not assisting enough. All the performances in the movie are very good.
In one sense, the racists had a point: Allowing other races to fully participate helps break down racism. At one point in the film, Rickey points out to Robinson that he saw a young white boy pretending to be the black player while on the field. As a youngster growing up in The Bronx in the 1950s, I idolized Willie Mays. A generation later, young people of all races and nations idolized Michael Jordan. It is far harder to be racist when you see people of a particular group as ones to applaud.
This is an important movie. It is not a great one; it remains too much as a one-note script: Good Jackie uses his great talent to overcome nasty racism. Yes, the facts are all there, but in adhering to the facts, unpleasant as some of them are, writer/director Brian Helgeland loses any subtlety. The audience will applaud Robinson’s achievements, but the overall sense of drama is weakened.
Still, it is a very worthwhile movie, particularly for baseball fans, but also for people who are eager to applaud personal courage. Jackie Robinson, seven years before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that segregation was wrong and even longer before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders took up the fight for equal rights, was the symbol and the lightning rod for change. He was a important person, one whose life should be celebrated, and this film does a good job of demonstrating why his work was so vital.