“If he were white, we would call that spirit.”
Whether or not Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager, ever said this about Jackie Robinson in response to those who thought he might be trouble for major league baseball because of being court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of an Army bus, doesn’t matter. What does is that Rickey’s (gamely played by Harrison Ford) matter-of-fact delivery of that line sums up not only the heart of the movie, but the heart of the double standard commonly applied to systemically oppressed people who refuse to comply with their own dehumanization.
Although based on actual events as Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, spirit is ultimately what the biopic “42” is about – fighting for unequivocal truths to come to light, and to stir the best within us all regardless of race, color or religion by leveling the playing field and by just straight up playing ball.
“Lincoln Heights” actor Chadwick Boseman, in his first major film role, does a commendable job bringing sports legend and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson to life. Boseman has an athletic grace and physicality that conveys the intelligence and scrappiness of Robinson’s game, but his performance shines most when he silently conveys Robinson’s struggle to hold himself in check when he is verbally and physically assaulted on and off the field. At one point in the film, Robinson’s baseball prowess is remarked on as “superhuman,” but after seeing all he endured off the field in “42,” his ability to stay calm and focussed in the midst of a sea change in American sports and culture was arguably his most compelling power.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland wisely starts the film with a black reporter chronicling Robinson’s achievements (later revealed to be Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, a well-known black newspaper of that era; Smith was assigned to cover Robinson’s journey), setting the stage by introducing and narrating America’s still racially tense post-war years. By framing this film about a black hero through the eyes and words of a black reporter shows Helgeland, who wrote the acclaimed “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River,” understands how deeply this movie is about a watershed moment in African-American history as much as it is about one extraordinary man. It needs to be told as “our story,” so by making Smith (played with quiet strength by Andre Howard) a guide, witness, admirer, and beneficiary of Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments, the core audience of “42” is able to hold the same positions while watching the story unfold.
Helgeland continues to be deft with the subject matter as he shows how Robinson’s presence in major league baseball inflamed, then quietly started to extinguish prejudice among players and fans. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk) spews scurrilous slurs at Robinson while he’s at bat, rattling Robinson and almost causing him to lose his infamous public cool, Branch Rickey finds Robinson in a corridor under the stadium taking his anger out on a cement wall with his bat. When Robinson says he’ll hit the next white man who says anything to him, Rickey does three amazing things: 1) he says nothing until Jackie’s a little calmer, 2) admits he knows nothing about what it must feel like to be Robinson and 3) compares Robinson’s journey to Jesus’ forty days in the desert, and encourages him to find the strength and faith to endure the hatred and vitriol.
Robinson pulls it together, and ultimately accepts the reminder that what he’s doing is larger than himself. Not long after, one of his teammates who can’t take watching Robinson being verbally assaulted anymore, stands up to the manager and says all that Robinson can’t say but was clearly feeling. This is a viscerally satisfying moment, showing the true power of non-violence and restraint to compel others to action out of an inherent sense of fairness and justice.
Later, at risk of losing his job for being so gallingly and openly racist, the Phillies manager is forced to take a photo with Robinson and make nice. Robinson smartly dictates the terms of this photo op and offers a bat as the bridge between them because he’s as loathe to shake Chapman’s hand as Chapman is to shake his. Robinson’s private reluctance to play games also garners respect from Rickey and his teammates, as well as the audience. His reactions – his temper, his cool – all feel real and go a long way of making the myth into a man.
Nicole Beharie does well as Robinson’s wife Rachel, but her role feels underdeveloped. She comes off as perfect and in support of all things Jackie. There are moments where she seems angry or worried – but only for or about Jackie. A touch of what she personally was going through could have added yet another dimension to Robinson’s story.
Helgeland’s use of children – boys to be specific – is far more revealing and poignant. As a youth, future major league baseball player Ed Charles watches Robinson at his first-ever spring training, and becomes the personification of a light switch – Charles is so turned on by seeing a man who looks like him doing something that’s never been done, he believes it possible for himself.
In another inspired bit of filmmaking, Helgeland shows a young white boy at a Cincinnati ball game with his father to watch his hero, Brooklyn short stop Pee Wee Reese. When his dad starts shouting epithets at Robinson along with the majority of the white crowd, the kid, confused but wanting to emulate his dad, reluctantly starts shouting epithets as well. But when Reese puts his arm around Robinson and quiets down the crowd with this show of solidarity for his teammate, the kid starts to realize he has a choice to make about what kind of man he wants to be. This moment is unexpectedly moving, as it wordlessly challenges us to not just be products of our environment, but to make up our own minds about what’s right or wrong, particularly when it comes to how we treat other human beings.
The release of “42” is timely not only because it’s opening the same weekend that Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, but because of how it reflects many of this nation’s current struggles with prejudice – unfair treatment of women, homophobia, religious intolerance, etc. and challenges us to break our own barriers, no matter how trying.
article by Lori Lakin Hutcherson