Many times arts and sports have paved the way for change in this country. Part of the reason Barack Obama could be elected president was the public had already seen Dennis Haysbert (“24”) and Morgan Freeman (Deep Impact) play that role on TV and in the movies. One moment that changed the equality landscape for women was when Billie Jean King defeated the loudly chauvinist Bobby Riggs in tennis. The fight for racial equality in the 1950s was brutal and violent, but the path had been if not smoothed at least tramped down a bit when Jackie Robinson slipped on his Brooklyn Dodger uniform with the number 42 and became the first black baseball player in the major leagues on April 15, 1947. That historic change in the United States has now been beautifully captured in the movie 42.
In the fall of 1945, shortly after the end of the Second World War. Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells a couple of his executives that he’s decided to desegregate baseball. When asked why, Rickey says that the money that blacks and whites use is all the same color – green. (He’ll explain his motivation two more times in the course of the movie, with increasing honesty.) To make his plan work, he needs a very special player. They look through the roster of Negro League players, dismissing several (including Satchel Paige with the comment that he’s too old; Satchel would have the last laugh though). Finally they come to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs that year.
Robinson had been born in Georgia, though his mother moved the family to California when Jackie was still young. He attended UCLA, where he was the first athlete to letter in football, track, basketball and baseball. Financial concerns made him drop out of school, and instead he enlisted the Army, rising to the rank of second lieutenant. His time in uniform was cut short when he faced a court martial because of incident of racial prejudice. He eventually received an honorable discharge, and later joined the Monarchs.
Rickey brings Robinson to New York City where he explains his plan. He says that he needs someone who won’t let the prejudice get to him because, regardless of the provocation, if the black player retaliated he’d be viewed as the one in the wrong. It leads to this exchange which mirrors the historical record of the meeting: Jackie: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back? Rickey: No, I want a player with the guts not to fight back. Jackie: You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.
The contract with the Dodgers allows Robinson to propose to Rachel (Nichol Behaire), his long-time girlfriend. They marry early in 1946, just before he reports to the training camp for the Dodgers minor league farm team in Montreal. Unfortunately the camp is in Florida and the Robinsons are almost late for spring training because of prejudice they encounter in New Orleans, where Rachel, having been raised in California, encounters her first “Whites Only” bathroom. Rickey arranges for black sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) to act as chauffeur, guide and mentor to Jackie. The challenges on and off the field only increase as Jackie enters the big leagues the next year.
Chadwick Boseman had mostly worked in television on shows such as Brooklyn Heights, Castle, and Fringe, before getting the role of Jackie Robinson. His performance is mesmerizing. He captures Robinson as a real person, with fears and foibles but also courage and honor. Nichol Behaire matches Boseman with both intensity and grace. You feel what it must have been like for the real Robinsons, and you wonder how they persevered in the face of it all.
Just as Robinson broke barriers, so did Wendell Smith. One excellent aspect of the movie is that he gets his due as well. Holland is excellent in the role, and the scene where Wendell tells Rachel Robinson what Jackie means to him gives you goose bumps. Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Rickey is a revelation. After years in heroic leading man roles, 42 gives him a chance to shine as a character actor. And shine he does.
The rest of the cast is just as stellar, including Christopher Meloni as Dodger manager Leo Durocher and Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Tudyk’s role calls on him to be a completely obnoxious example of racism. He plays the role beautifully, which means he’s horrendous and hard to watch. It’s especially strange to see him in such a role after his classic turn as the gentle pilot “Wash” Washburne, married to Gina Torres’ Zoe, on the series “Firefly.”
A pivotal role in the movie is Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black. Reese was the acknowledge star of the Dodgers, who had to face down his own prejudices when Jackie joined the club. Director and screenwriter Brian Helgelund uses him in a sense to stand in for baseball on the whole and its coming to grips with the change brought about by Robinson.
One would not think of Helgelund first as the one to make this movie. He came to prominence adapting L.A. Confidential, and later he did the scripts for movies such as Mystic River, Man on Fire and Green Zone. He’d only directed a couple of movies, all that he also scripted, such as Payback and A Knight’s Tale. (On Payback he’d fought with star Mel Gibson, who was producing the movie; Gibson ended up firing him and finishing the directing himself.) Here, though, he shows a strong visual style and marshals the story so it’s both compelling and thrilling. Especially good is the action on the field, since he captures the feel of the game, such as what it’s like to face a major league pitcher.
Special kudos to the visual effects department for recreating the era, including Ebbets Field, as well as to the costume department. This is a finely detailed film, which adds to its evocation of the time.
This is not an easy film to watch, though, since it doesn’t shy away from presenting racism as it was then, deeply ingrained in the nation’s psyche. A friend had wondered whether it would be appropriate to take children to see this movie. My answer would be, this is a movie that every young person in this country should see, and older people as well. Recently there have been incidents that show the racism of the 1940s still lies beneath the surface in this country. But just as Jackie Robinson broke through prejudice at that time, 42 exposes how prejudice diminishes all who practice it, and the beauty that can be seen when prejudice is overcome.