“Baseball is proof positive that democracy exists,” as one of the opening tag-lines to this spring’s heart-warming film 42 assures us. Except that for 60 years, major league baseball excluded minorities. But in 1947, the number of white baseball players in the major league dropped from 400 to 399. The single African-American man signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers that year was Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a man who would change the face of American baseball forever.
Unlike other films documenting the lives of sports heroes and celebrities, 42 does an excellent job of focusing on the compelling start to the Jackie Robinson story. The movie follows the tale of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) as Brooklyn Dodger’s President and general manager, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), tracks Robinson down. Rickey’s expressed purpose is bringing in talent and money to his team. “Money isn’t black or white;” Rickey explains, “it’s green.” However, at each step of the way, there seems to be something deeper to Rickey’s cause. He treats Robinson as an equal, requires his employees to train Robinson fairly, and refuses to allow the fear and stubbornness of others in the league to stand in his way. That stubbornness is present at every turn. There are players who try to petition against playing with an African-American, an obnoxious manager who bullies Robinson from the sidelines (played eerily well by Alan Tudyk—Suburgatory, Firefly), and numerous letters full of hate and threats, to name just a few of the trials placed before Robinson. Time and again, he is tested. And time and again, Robinson prevails.
Chadwick Boseman (Lincoln Heights, The Kill Hole) truly captures the spirit of Jackie Robinson, the cool, proud baseball player who must hold his tongue to further his career. Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Witness) is fantastic as Dodgers’ manager Branch Rickey, a kindly old curmudgeon who knows what he wants and goes straight after it. In all, the film is excellently cast and full of familiar faces—ranging from Grey’s Anatomy favorites T.R. Knight and James Pickens, Jr., to Friday Night Light’s Lucas Black and former Disney star Ryan Merriman, to Hamish Linklater of The Old Adventures of New Christine and Christopher Meloni of NYPD Blue and Law & Order: SVU. Tying the film together are Mrs. Rachel Robinson, as played by the charming Nicole Beharie (Shame), and African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith, portrayed by Andre Holland (1600 Penn)—without whom Robinson might never have succeeded.
At one point, Rickey tells Robinson that he once believed life and baseball to be simple. When he found out life was not quite so simple, he continued to hope that maybe baseball could retain its simplicity. However, nothing in this world is truly black and white, and even the simplest things have a gray area, especially when ignorance and prejudice create exclusion and hate. One particularly interesting piece of the Jackie Robinson story, as portrayed in this film, is Robinson’s keen ability to judge a pitch and steal a base. He stole the hearts of many Americans during his fruitful baseball career, and he will continue to live on in the hearts of us all. The movie 42 truly hits a home run.
Review By: Alexandra Pauley