‘42’ details the struggles and triumph of Jackie Robinson

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures drama 42, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.(D. Stevens/Legendary Pictures)

When Jackie Robinson came to the major leagues, racism was no accident.

From time to time, people try to treat the national debate about race as something benign, less about hatred and violence than about well-intentioned people simply not thinking carefully about the words or images they use. Or those who see racism in different incidents are accused of practicing political correctness, a term that has sadly become pejorative instead of a reminder that people should want to speak and act correctly.

But however much one may want to gloss over racism, its history in America is one full of ugliness and horror — ugliness that was practiced not in back alleys or by hooded night riders, but openly, even in that American temple, the ballpark.

This is why the new movie 42 should be seen, especially by young people. It shows that, not so long ago, racism was commonplace and often accepted, and that it took a couple of men to bring at least part of that racism into the open and force people to consider both the nature and cost of hate.

Although 66 years have passed since Robinson broke a long-standing ban on African-American players in big-league baseball, it was part of a series of events that still needs to be considered and discussed today. Indeed, if 42 had gone a couple of years longer into Robinson’s story, it would have shown that people were still waiting for Robinson to validate some long-held prejudice. When Robinson’s 1972 memoir was called I Never Had It Made, the emphasis was clearly on the never.

But 42, written and directed by Brian Helgeland, is more eager to make a point about individual determination and the way individuals and societies can change. It does so through Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), who decided after World War II to integrate baseball, and Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the player Rickey chose to make that momentous move.

The film then follows the maneuvering by both Rickey, whose decision is not greeted enthusiastically by his peers, and Robinson, who must curb his temper even in the face of bitter abuse in order not to give ammunition to those who believed African-Americans did not belong in baseball. (Author Mark Ribowsky notes that an integration attempt by the St. Louis Browns in 1947 was a failure, because neither of the two players was especially good and one had “a police record and a drinking problem, and carried a gun.”)

As the movie shows, the problems facing Robinson were not just outside the Dodgers. Robinson, for one, did not ask to be liked, and Boseman’s performance well conveys some chilliness and surly moments, even when dealing with supportive journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland). The manager of the club’s minor-league team in Montreal, where Robinson played before moving up to Brooklyn, was a racist. Some of the Dodgers signed a petition saying they would not play with Robinson. But Rickey held firm, Robinson demonstrated his skill and some of the players defied convention; Robinson long praised the steadfast support he received from teammate Pee Wee Reese (nicely played here by Lucas Black).

Although the movie has its dramatic embroideries, many of the incidents are historically accurate or close to it, including the pivotal scenes in the movie where the Dodgers played a Philadelphia Phillies team whose manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), encouraged players and engaged in some of the worst racial taunts Robinson heard — taunts so horrible that fans complained, and the other Dodgers became more united in support of Robinson. Helgeland lets the invective pile up, as Chapman tosses n-word after n-word at Robinson, along with stereotypes and jibes at the other Dodgers for playing with Robinson.

The roll of words got to Robinson, who later wrote that they “brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been.” But somehow, he avoided fighting back — and it was Chapman who was finally humiliated, both by Robinson’s play and by subsequent demands that he pose for peace-making photos with Robinson. (Although Robinson recalled shaking hands with Chapman, the movie — and other accounts of the meeting — show that Chapman never actually touched Robinson, but held a baseball bat with him.)

The movie overall has its flaws, including some heavy-handed insertion of children into the story to make a point about both Robinson as an inspiration and the way hatred can be passed down. The complexity of race in baseball in 1947 is not entirely clear; while Robinson was dazzling the National League, the Cleveland Indians brought in Larry Doby to integrate the American, and the Dodgers late in the 1947 season briefly had a second African-American player, pitcher Dan Bankhead.

But Boseman is effective, as is Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife, Rachel. Ford makes a splendid Rickey, cagey, funny, a bit of a blowhard but a visionary who was not deterred in his quest. In addition to Black, Tudyk and Holland, the supporting cast is full of sturdy character actors like Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher. And the movie as a whole is worth seeing, especially for young people who do not recognize the scars racism has left on the national body.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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