“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.