NATIONWIDE – Jackie Robinson’s life is lesson in courage. It’s a sobering but inspiring reminder of the barbaric cruelty of racism and those who rallied against it. This revealing film tracks his ascension from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. And though you think you may know his story, you couldn’t possibly fathom the horrors he endured to pave the way for Black athletes.
42 vividly captures defining moments in the legendary baseball player’s career. It spans 1945 to 1947, when he married his sweetheart, played with Dodger farm teams and eventually the Brooklyn Dodgers. Chronicling Robinson’s entire life might have been a gargantuan task, and too lengthy an endeavor for one movie, but it’s a pity the filmmakers didn’t try. When this well-intentioned 2-hour, 18minute bio-film comes to an abrupt end, you’ll want more. You’ll want to know about his pre- and post-career life.
In 1945, when African American servicemen returned from World War II, they encountered an America deeply entrenched in prejudice, Jim Crow laws and segregation. Major League Baseball teams were all White, until one fateful day Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decided to stir things up. “Everyone will be against it… I’m going to bring a Negro player to the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
The alliance between Rickey and Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is no accident. The manager is looking precisely for a courageous man who has both guts and restraint, which is what it will take to weather an impending barrage of criticism and resistance. During the war, Robinson had been court-martialed for not sitting in the back of a military bus. That bold move intrigued Rickey, and he sought him out. The fearless veteran tells the GM, “You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, and I’ll give you the guts.”
Director/writer Brian Helgeland is a decent director (Knight’s Tale) but a much stronger writer (Oscar winner for L.A. Confidential and Oscar nominee for Mystic River). He’s assembled a very professional production crew, and that is the flaw in his approach. This film needed to be grittier than it is.
All the characters are wearing brand new clothes (courtesy of costume designer Caroline Harris), as if they just went on a Macy’s shopping spree. Cindy Carr’s sets are too perfect and obvious, you can detect when a Hollywood back lot is substituting for a real New York location. The cinematography (Don Burgess) is super glossy, like a car commercial. Trumpets blare incessantly like Caesar is entering the room. The editing is the one production element that is right on the mark; Peter McNulty and Kevin Stitt make the footage fly by like a fastball.
As a minor league player, Robinson is forced to live a shadow existence, staying with local Black families because hotels reject him. His chauffeur and guide is Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a Black sports writer for the Pittsburgh Courier. When Robinson gets despondent over his maltreatment and being shunned by the team, Smith lets him know that his experience is not isolated. “You aren’t the only one. Negro reporters aren’t allowed in the press room, either.”
Robinson’s struggles with his fellow players, with rival teams and their managers are well documented. As he works his way through the minor leagues, he’s psychologically and emotionally abused. White pitchers use his head for target practice. Through it all, you’re horrified, angry, and sad. When Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the manager of the Phillies screams the ‘N’ word at the nerve-frayed Robinson when he comes to bat, in front of a packed stadium, you wonder how can this man bear it. Then the day he steps on to Ebbets Field, as a full-fledged Brooklyn Dodger, your emotions peak and you get the chills. It’s a milestone. Historic. He is the first Black man to play a Major League Baseball game. The past is erased. The future is now.
Despite the film’s sleek feel, the basic life story with its tribulations and triumphs remain intact. It’s inspiring, especially as depicted by Boseman who has the swagger of a young Denzel Washington. Serious, stoic, pent up. If anything he suppresses his anger better than Washington, letting it ride under the surface, so when it erupts, it’s dramatic, forceful. The physicality of his performance—mimicking Robinson’s awkward batting stance and freaky, base-stealing agility—is uncanny.
The romance between Jackie and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie; Shame and American Violet) depicts a strong foundation. Beharie flaunts the charm and determination that is trademark of the real Mrs. Robinson. Lucas Black as Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, is the quintessential character actor; the one you call when you need a Southern man with a solid persona. Tudyk as Chapman is suitable vicious and unremorseful as the “N” word rolls off his tongue with venom that would shame the KKK. Harrison, a lead actor, is not an obvious choice to play an historical character. His performance seems a bit studied, clunky and theatrical, but eventually he wins you over.
Hegeland’s script spends the right amount of time exploring Robinson’s inner self. He wasn’t just a skilled athlete; he was a keen strategist, a smart man’s player. He could get under the skin of any pitcher by stealing bases with the cunning of a fox. He was ferocious, yet a gentleman. The flaw in the script is that too often the characters talk in platitudes, and not like real people. Particularly Rickey; probably he was as smart businessman with certain ideals and solid morals. It’s unlikely that every sentence he uttered was prosaic, poignant and prophetic: “Dollars aren’t black and white, they’re green.”
One evening, while strolling through Brooklyn Jackie and Rachel are confronted by a White stranger. She is scared, he steps in front of her to protect her. They are surprised when the admirer says: “If a man’s got the goods, he deserves a fair shake.” That fairness doctrine drives American culture. Seeking justice is the film’s hook and the major attraction to Robinson’s storied life.
This honorable and enlightening film pays due respect to Jackie Robinson—a sports legend and courageous American hero.
By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic