a film review
by Jeanne Powell
A film about baseball legend Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) was sure to generate interest. This film has excellent production values and will satisfy many with its glossy history of how major league baseball broke the color line in 1947.
Veteran actor and proven box-office star Harrison Ford brings alive the character of Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers during the period after World War II. His speech, physical mannerisms, tone of voice and clothes all take you away from Ford’s “aging action figure” persona and into postwar America.
Just after the First World War, Rickey created the farm team system on which major league baseball came to rely. However, Rickey is remembered most as the first white baseball executive to tap into the talent of the legendary Negro Baseball Leagues. In 1946 he scouted the Negro Leagues, picked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs, signed him to the Montreal Royals farm team for a year, then brought him up to the big leagues, where he wore the number "42." The racists were waiting.
Each year the major league teams would play teams from the Negro Leagues and would lose games as often as they won. Every white team owner knew there was great untapped talent in the Negro Leagues – Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, James “Cool Papa” Bell and others – but no one wanted to deal with the white backlash which would accompany integration.
Branch Rickey decided to be that pioneer, because he wanted the financial profit which would come from integrating major league baseball. And as Harrison Ford says in the film, he (Rickey) also “wanted to feel good about baseball again.”
Ably played by Chadwick Boseman, Robinson asks Rickey why he was chosen. Rickey warns him of the steady barrage of racism he will face, and says he needs someone familiar with racially integrated situations and who is capable of holding his temper regardless of provocation.
Robinson fit that bill. He was raised in California and attended UCLA, where he was an outstanding athlete. He served in the military, and lodged a protest against racist conduct while he was in uniform.
And he would need all his life experience, as well as the support of his lovely wife Rachel, to contend with bigotry in the Deep South where the farm team trained, and prejudiced behavior from the Dodgers themselves once he was brought up to the major leagues.
Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman, who plays Jackie Robinson, has appeared on televison in Third Watch, Law & Order, Cold Case and ER, as well as the short-lived but brilliant tv series, Detroit 1-8-7.
Brian Helgeland directed from his own screenplay. He also directed the crime drama “Payback” with Mel Gibson. And Helgeland wrote the screenplays for “L.A. Confidential,” for “Mystic River” starring Sean Penn, and “The Taking of Pelham 123” starring Denzel Washington.
Leo Durocher, colorful manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers until he was suspended for “conduct detrimental to baseball” with regard to his personal life, is played by Christopher Meloni (Law & Order tv series). Meloni walks through the role, as if the Durocher character had been written in a way to avoid upstaging the Branch Rickey character.
Nicole Beharie is Robinson’s supportive wife Rachel in the film; she has excellent chemistry with her co-star Boseman. She has appeared in television series such as Law & Order and The Good Wife.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said of Robinson, "he underwent the trauma and humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim..."
The threats were frequent and serious; at one point Rickey shows a baseball player three manila folders filled with death threats against Robinson and his wife, just from his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The continual pressure on Jackie Robinson to prove himself and hold his temper is captured in a particularly ugly incident during a game against Cincinnati, where the opposing team’s manager hurls racial epithets at him for more than five minutes. This is Hollywood’s way of demonstrating the racism he faced, which approach ignores the fact that racial consciousness was forced on Robinson throughout his major league career.
Before his death at age 53, Robinson was in failing health. If he had failed in this first attempt to integrate major league baseball, the results would have been catastrophic for Black America and for the sports world. Yet, his success meant the beginning of the end for the legendary and influential Negro Baseball Leagues. Robinson had to bear this double burden the rest of his life.
To show its appreciation for Robinson's pioneering efforts, the major league baseball commission retired the number 42 from use by any team after his years with the Dodgers.
A glossy and feel-good film, “42” will play well with many audiences. Ford will receive an Oscar nomination. And many Americans will have to go to Bing or to Google to find out more about the Negro Baseball Leagues.
Causes Jeanne Powell Supports
Union of Concerned Scientists, VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), Doctors Without Borders, Waterkeeper Alliance, PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility...