Considering Jackie Robinson’s prominent position in American history, it’s frankly surprising that the film industry had not done a biopic on him until the just released “42,” which stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who signed him to a contract in 1946 that would finally integrate Major League Baseball a year later.
Screenwriter and director Brian Helgeland wisely limits this fast-moving film to the 1946 and ’47 seasons, and there is certainly enough material for him.
The movie opens with Rickey telling the Dodgers public relations director Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight) that the time has come for baseball to accept a Negro. Rickey is portrayed as a deeply religious man fond of quoting the Scriptures, particularly “Love thy neighbor.” He is well aware of the fact that the United States had just helped conquer fascism thanks in no small part to African-American soldiers. He was also painfully cognizant that the Jim Crow laws of segregation diminished America’s greatness.
When Parrott expresses his qualms about possible backlash by fans against a black player, Rickey scolds him by saying that he is only concerned about winning a World Series. Winning is also the only thing that matters to irascible Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), who looks forward to managing Robinson.
While there was no shortage of qualified players for Rickey to choose from, he selected Robinson because he was a star in four sports at UCLA, was a World War II veteran and was both intelligent and intense — at times bordering on the belligerent.
“It takes guts not to fight back,” Branch says to Jackie, who reluctantly understands that he will have to play the role of Ghandi if other black players are to make it to the majors.
Boseman thankfully portrays Robinson not as a saint but as someone who possessed a temper and was a bit distant even to those who were on his side, such as Pittsburgh sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Howard) — who was the Jackie Robinson of sportswriters as he was the first to integrate the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1948 after years of not being allowed to enter a press box.
Robinson most likely would not have been able to survive the incessant ruthless insults that were hurled at him by opposing players, managers and segregationist hotel managers without the bedrock support of his wife, Rachel (Nichole Beharie). She even gave him a batting tip before a crucial September series with the Pirates.
While “42” understandably focuses on the relationship between Robinson and Rickey, Helgeland doesn’t neglect smaller details about that fateful 1947 season. It is disconcerting to hear the racial epithets hurled at Robinson by racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tyduk) and to see the Dodgers bus get turned away at Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Hotel because the owners did not want to see it get integrated. Making matters worse, some of Jackie’s southern teammates take out their frustrations on him.
Fortunately, Jackie had teammates who were also friends, such as pitcher Ralph Branca and outfielder Gene Hermanski. No white Dodger was more courageous, however, than shortstop Harold “Pee Wee” Reese (Lucas Black), who grew up in Louisville, Ky. While playing at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in front of a lot of friends and family, Reese got so disgusted with the vitriol aimed at Robinson that he walked over and put his arm around him. “I want my family to see the kind of man that I am,” Reese told him.
As with almost every sports movie, there is some cringe-inducing corny dialog here, but it’s kept to a minimum. Ford and Boseman are spectacular in the lead roles, as are Beharie and Howard in their key supporting roles. Not just an important history lesson, “42” is a rather good film as well.