Films often take liberties to make stories more entertaining, but may also pay tribute to the real people behind them. Jackie Robinson’s story, 42, balances the life of a sports icon with traditional cinematic story-telling.
I discovered Jackie Robinson’s in the third grade, while writing a report. As the first African-American, professional baseball player, his story stayed with me long after. He was the first professional athlete that I recognized from an era so far away, I had to learn more about it. Seeing number 42’s legacy come to life in film brings a more graphic understanding of why Robinson’s career remains a big deal today.
42 begins in 1945, as Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decides to bring a black player to the team. At that time, in Kansas City, Jackie Robinson plays as a part of The Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. After researching potential, famous talents from the Negro League, (including Satchel Paige, who is considered to be “too old” at the time), Rickey settles on Jackie Robinson.
Robinson meets with Branch, who tells him that he doesn’t want a player who will fight back, but one with “guts enough NOT to fight back.” We then see him shipped to the Montreal Royals in the International League, where he terrorizes pitchers, steals bases and works his way up to the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.
The heart of the film lies in the interactions between Jackie and everyone else he meets. Teammates react differently, from seeing him as another player to disgust at his presence. Other teams refuse to pitch to him, either walking him or trying to take his head off.
A famous encounter with Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who never runs out of racial insults from his dugout, is one of several uncomfortable, heavily racist moments. Abuse follows Jackie but he fights back the only way he can; with class, on and off the field.
Chadwick Boseman, an actor with several television credits, (Fringe, Justified, Detroit 187) leads the cast as Robinson, in a confident film debut. Harrison Ford steals as many scenes as Robinson does bases, in a great turn as Branch Rickey. He’s an interesting character and I can’t imagine this man any other way.
We don’t see any of Jackie’s early life before the Negro Leagues. His childhood in Georgia, military service or time playing at UCLA aren’t shown but with a run time of 128 minutes, much of this may end up as DVD extras.
Some moments encouraged research because I felt a Hollywood touch. Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) putting his arm around Jackie in front of a hostile crowd felt like an emotional beat, but I was happy to find that this was a big, authentic moment in Robinson’s life.
42 is a great biopic and an important one. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it, but it won’t hurt. Today, having a black president is a big deal. 42 is a film that younger audiences should see, for a time in America when being a black anything was almost impossible.