Those same children are just as likely to have forgotten about this triumph over adversity and bigotry by the time they become adults, acknowledging Robinson only from an athletic perspective.
Not only was Robinson the first African American to break the color line in Major League Baseball, but he was the first black man to head a major corporation in America, received the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was the first African American television analyst in MLB, helped establish the Freedom Bank in Harlem and helped found several charitable organizations. But a man of his historical stature cannot be measured by the sum of his individual achievements. One would need genuine insight into the man.
Surprisingly, “42” is the first attempt at bringing the life of Robinson to the big screen in over 60 years, the last motion picture (“The Jackson Robinson Story”) was released in 1950. It was about time for an update, and this Warner Bros. release does not disappoint. Starring Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, “42” picks up in 1945 just as Robinson is traveling with the Kansas Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.
He and his teammates are disembarking the team bus at a rural gas station in the south as a white gas attendant fills up the tank. The conversation appears polite enough until Robinson attempts to enter a white’s only bathroom. From there the scene escalates until Robinson threatens to take the team’s business elsewhere. In the modern context such exchanges are common, and often filled with much more over all tension in many cases.
But a black man in a heated exchange with a white man in the rural south in 1945 was a rare sight. A black man getting a white male to relent on a business matter may have been rarer still. To me, that scene set the tone for the type of man writer and director Brian Helgeland wanted Robinson portrayed as, which Chadwick Boseman did with great skill while showing warmth, intensity and nobility in equally high measure.
The film also illustrates how a great man needs a great woman’s support for comfort and peace of mind. Actress Nicole Beharie plays Rachel Isum, wife of Jackie Robinson. From the moment she and Boseman share a scene together their chemistry blends into a wonderful depiction of a beautiful courtship that blossomed into a life long love story. Beharie’s plays Isum as having an inner fire equal to Robinson’s. That was delightful and refreshing. A “uppity negro” in the pre-civil rights south may have raised some eyebrows, an uppity “negress” was a societal anomaly. Isum is portrayed as possessing great warmth, and as being a loving wife and support system with subtle skill and seemed to melt with Boseman during their respective scenes together. Great job.
Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, as played by actor Harrison Ford, was a jewel in this crown of a filming achievement. His relationship with Rickey is pivotal in the life of Robinson, and Ford does not disappoint. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Harrison Ford will get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 2014 for this one. Masterful! He became Branch Rickey. The mannerisms, the speech and his fervent belief in Robinson were all on display to the delight of the entire audience. Being that trees usually have more than one limb, I’m going to go out on another one and say this might be one of his top 20 best roles in his storied career. That may even be a conservative estimate. You have to see for yourself.
The film is also filled with loads of other great peripheral performances. Lucas Black plays Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who formed an unlikely friendship with Jackie. Unlikely for reasons beyond the cosmetic. Robinson had played shortstop prior to being called up to the majors, which is the position Pee Wee was playing. That fact was even brought up by the baseball writers several times in the film. But Reese would be the first of his teammates to publicly embrace Robinson, placing his arm around him in the in-field. Reese is depicted as having been resistant to his team mates attempts at boycotting the team over Robinson and was a constant voice of reason even before number 42 would arrive from the minor leagues. The fact that he was from Kentucky is another thing.
Look out for John C. McGinley’s portrayal of Brooklyn Dodger’s announcer Red Barber. Super funny stuff! Baseball fans should keep an ear out for some of his antiquated one liners. One listen and you might wonder why people don’t say that type of stuff anymore. For example, his description of a conversation between Brookyn manager Leo Durocher, played briefly yet brilliantly by Christopher Meloni, and an umpire as ‘chin-wagging.’
Speaking of Meloni, the reason he was not in the entire film is because Leo Durocher is depicted in the film as having been suspended by MLB for a year because of an adulterous affair with a Hollywood actress. But the official reason is “association with gamblers.” Also, look out for Andre Holland. He plays reporter Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Hired by Mr. Rickey in 1945, Smith would be Robinson’s defacto public relationship representative, and would go on to become the first African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
“42” not only captures the characters and personalities pivotal to telling the story correctly, but it successfully captures the sights and sounds of baseball, as well as the rabid racism inherent of the time. Chadwick Boseman’s depiction of Robinson as personifying strength, pride and courage is certain to propel him on to greater things in his career.
I’ve seen “42” already, and can’t wait to see it again. I’m curious to see how the rest of the of country, especially African American audiences, will support this film. Released by Warner Bros., “42” is scheduled to open nationwide on April 12. I can’t wait to see it again.