‘42’ swings a heavy bat at issues of racism and bigotry.
Photo by Courtesy Warner Brothers
A few days ago I arrived in Atlanta and struck up a conversation with my cabbie as we slugged through an afternoon traffic jam. The discussion eased from the Final Four to The Masters to baseball. That's when it really got interesting, because you can't talk about baseball these days without coming to the new Jackie Robinson biopic, "42."
"42" hit a home run at the box office this past weekend, doing better in its opening debut than "Moneyball." And "42" has people talking, even though most folks know Robinson's legacy. Robinson was the first African American since the 1880s to break through the silent code of segregation and play on a Major League Baseball team.
The film, directed by Brian Helgeland, opens with newsreels, a loose homage to "Citizen Kane." In 1945, America's greatest generation began coming back from World War II. Sixteen major league baseball teams boasted 400 players--all of them white. But, on April 15, 1947, that changed to 399 white players and one black athlete.
Some racial barriers had already started to shift by 1945: Jesse Owens won gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and defied Adolf Hitler's "master race" agenda; Joe Gans and Jack Johnson's dazzling feats amazed the boxing world. But track and boxing were individual sports, not team sports.
Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the manager and executive of the Dodgers, wanted to integrate baseball. "Dollars aren't black and white," Rickey tells his staff. "They are green. Every dollar is green."
Rickey's vision to integrate baseball had multiple components. He chose Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), not because he was the best African American baseball player for his time, but because he had strength of character. And they were both Methodist.
When Rickey signed Robinson, he didn't mince words: "We've got no army. There's virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I'm afraid that many fans will be hostile. We'll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I'm doing this because you're a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman."
It takes guts to not fight back, and that's the dramatic conflict that engages all of our emotions. Will Robinson strike back?
Then Rickey comes in with a quip or two and lightens the tension. I particularly enjoyed Harrison Ford's gruff, growling portrayal of the engineer behind the change. He's forceful and, dare I say, entertaining.
As Robinson, Boseman's performance keeps the film grounded. Robinson knows people are counting on him, but it is hard to turn the other cheek and ignore the abuse.
This film swings a heavy bat against the ugly issues of racism and bigotry. It's embarrassing to see Robinson booed and called disrespectful names. Or to see a pitcher purposefully aim at his head. Or to see the team turned away from a hotel because of Robinson. The shots of the "white only" bathrooms resonate as well. This film shows us all forms of injustice. It was wrong then, it's wrong now, and it's horrifying to see.
One scene that continues to resonate after the viewing shows Robinson and journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) walking on a sidewalk. A redneck white guy follows them and then calls out for Robinson to stop. There's an uncomfortable moment. The white guy says, "If the man's got the goods, he deserves a chance."
What more can anyone ask for but a chance to be in the game?