By KIRBY MCCORD
By now everyone has heard of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball. He is in all the history textbooks, along with a host of other “firsts,” which is, after all, history-making. But Brian Helgeland’s “42” does a fantastic job of humanizing the story of Jackie Robinson.
In late 1945, World War II has ended, the soldiers are returning home, and Branch Rickey is the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey’s faith in the American Dream of justice and equality leads him to envision integrating baseball. But he knows it will be difficult and the first black baseball player must have the courage to weather the abuse that will be heaped upon him. He chooses Jackie Robinson. At first, Robinson is a celebrity, sort of an oddity that draws media attention. But after a year playing minor ball in Montreal, he is deemed good enough to be called up to the majors—and that is when the widespread symptoms of racism begin to take their toll. His own team members threaten to strike rather than accept him as a teammate. But as the grueling season progresses, Robinson’s athleticism, tenacity, and righteous example serve to unite the team, which goes on to the World Series.
The cast is top-notch. Chadwick Boseman (“The Kill Hole”) plays Jackie Robinson with grit and an enviable integrity. Nicole Beharie(“Shame”) portrays Jackie’s wife Rachel as a determined iconoclast with a clever sense of humor. Harrison Ford (“Cowboys & Aliens”) is Branch Rickey, a cigar-smoking patriot who wants to see baseball reflect American values. Lucas Black (“Seven Days in Utopia”) plays Southern-born Pee Wee Reese, who believes that a man’s achievements should define him, not the color of his skin. Alan Tudyk (“Serenity”) portrays bigoted Philadelphia manager Ben Chapmen as a venom-spitting good old boy.
The screenplay and direction by Brian Helgeland(“A Knight’s Tale”) is episodic in nature, but does a fine job of outlining the good, the bad, and the ugly of post-World War Two America. We see a Southern sheriff marching onto the diamond to ban Robinson from the field; theracism isn’t confined to the South, as hotels in the North refuse to let the team stay because of Robinson. But such stomach-wrenching bigotry is balanced with heroism: a teammate defends Robinson, standing up to the hostile haranguing of the Phillies manager; in Cincinnati, Pee Wee Reese embraces Robinson publiclyto show he accepts him in front of a hate-screaming crowd, then personally thanks Robinson for helping him be a better man. This is one of the great elements of the script—rather than focus only on the negative, writer-director Helgeland uses that hatred as the cauldron which brings out the best in men such as Branch Rickey, Pee Wee Reese, and especially Jackie Robinson.
The script of “42” also does a decent job of opening a window into that era. Leo Durocher,is the Dodgers’ manager. But he is suspended for having an affair with a married woman — something that would barely draw a second look today. The costumes and sets help with that journey back in time; the old-school ballparks peopled with segregated fedora-wearing fans come to life. Sadly, period music that would have completed that journey for us fails to materialize.
42” is a passionate look at a passionate man who controlled those passions under very difficult circumstances. It makes us ask the questions: if Jackie Robinson had cracked under the pressure, how long would it have taken for the second black man to play major league baseball? Isn’t his heroism to be saluted? And aren’t Rickey, Reese and others to be admired as well? This is a well-told tale worth telling.