America’s first black Major League player
The heroic tale of Jackie Robinson
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Starring Chadwick Boseman, T.R. Knight, Harrison Ford
After watching the masterful biopic 42, about the struggles of Jackie Robinson, his wife, and his team’s owner, during Jackie’s first year in the Major Leagues, the truth in Alonzo Bodden’s bit called “First Black Anything” becomes clear: “If you are the first black anything, you can’t be good. Your ass better be miraculous. You have to be unbelievable.” Bodden bemoans — in a hilarious manner — the uphill battle that non-whites face to earn recognition when entering any new field. Even though he gets to the subject apropos of Barack Obama’s presidency, Bodden illustrates the point invoking Jackie Robinson, “the first black player in the Mayor Leagues.”
“Do you understand how great Jackie Robinson had to be?” said Bodden.
The joke works because it is, sadly, true. Barack and Michelle Obama are said to have been “physically moved” watching an early screening of the movie. Regardless of your background, 42 will be a moving watch for anyone with feelings regarding discrimination.
The movie starts with a summary of post-war America, when black soldiers returned from the battlefields of WWII after risking their lives gallantly fighting for their country, just to face Jim Crow discrimination back at home. Baseball, considered a reflection of America’s democracy, was one of the places where this discrimination was more strongly felt and segregation was most deeply ingrained. While the Major Leagues were in theory open to all, black baseball players were limited to “negro league” teams. This all changed in 1947, when a man called Branch Rickey, played masterfully by Harrison Ford, decided that he was going to “bring a negro ball player” to his team, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers. The reaction (“Have you lost your mind?”) was swift and violent. Rickey was warned that, even though there was no law against it, there was a code, and he was about to break it.
Rickey selected a player called Jackie Robinson, who was not only outstanding on the field, but also strong-willed and proud. Where others saw a short-tempered troublemaker, Rickey saw the makings of a hero, “practically superhuman” in his baseball skills and with the chops to achieve — through gentlemanly behavior and sporting prowess — the breakthrough that he envisioned of desegregated baseball. Rickey paid a high price for this, receiving hundreds of death threats, yet he never took at step back. His motivations receive a lot of attention throughout the movie, from Jackie and others. At the beginning Rickey claims it is all about the money. Later it is suggested that his motivation is moral, driven by his religious convictions. But at the end of the movie, his true motivation — deeper and unexpected — is revealed.
Jackie Robinson is played superbly by the young Chadwick Boseman, a virtual newcomer to the big screen. The decision not to cast a big-star black actor — a Will Smith, a Denzel Washington, a Cuba Gooding Jr. — pays off handsomely, since Boseman, whose face is not associated with previous blockbusters, manages to convince the audience that he is Jackie Robinson. Rachel, the hero’s wife, is played by a sparkling Nicole Beharie (of American Violet fame), whose weapons-grade smile becomes a beacon of hope and endurance throughout the movie. The anti-heroes are played to the beat by a large array of characters, from fellow teammates to whole cities: Cincinnati and Philadelphia don’t come across as particularly progressive.
Jackie Robinson, the man, was truly one of a kind. He could hit, run, and catch. He would steal bases with the same ease that he would hit home runs. This movie, about his most difficult and at the same time his greatest hour, is also one of a kind. It is an instant classic, in the same league as other iconographies such as Men of Honor, Ray and Ali. The cinematography and editing are masterful. One scene in particular, with pans of a black and white audience singing the “Star Spangled Banner” before a game, is truly a work of genius. The conclusion of the movie is also deeply moving, to the point that it made the hairs of my neck stand. 42 is a universal, human story that transcends race and nationality.