Running Time: 128 mins. Rating: 3 Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater, T.R. Knight, John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens Jr.
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 that stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who signed him to a contract with the Dodgers organization in 1946 that would finally integrate Major League Baseball a year later. Screenwriter and film director Brian Helgeland wisely limits this fast-moving two-hour film to the 1946 and ‘47 seasons and there is certainly more than enough material for him.
42 opens with Branch 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 who is fond of quoting the Scriptures; particularly “Love thy neighbor.” He is well aware of the fact that the US had just helped conquer fascism thanks in no small part to African-American soldiers. Branch 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 and that leads to the only color that truly matters to a team owner– green as in the color of money flowing into the coffers. Winning is the only thing that matters to irascible Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) who is looking forward to managing Jackie Robinson.
While there was no shortage of qualified players for Rickey to choose from, he selected Jackie Robinson because he was a star in four sports at UCLA, was a World War II veteran, and was both intelligent and an intense which at times bordered on the belligerent. “It takes guts not to fight back,” says Branch to Jackie who reluctantly understands that he will have to play the role of Gandhi if other black players are to make it to the majors.
Chadwick Boseman thankfully portrays Jackie 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.
Jackie most likely would not have been able to survive the incessant ruthless insults that were hurled at him by numerous 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, Brian Helgeland doesn’t neglect smaller details about that fateful 1947 season. While we all know about the prejudice Jackie faced, it is disconcerting to hear the racial epithets hurled at him by racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tyduk) as well as watching the Dodgers bus get turned away at Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Hotel because the owners did not want to see their swanky lodge get integrated. Making matters worse, some of Jackie’s southern teammates such as Dixie Walker and Kirby Higbe take out their frustrations on him when they are told that they can’t stay at the Franklin.
Fortunately Jackie had teammates who were also friends such as pitcher Ralph Branca and outfielder Gene Hermanski. No white Dodger player was more courageous however than shortstop Harold “Pee Wee” Reese (Lucas Black) who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. While playing at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in front of a lot of friends and family (the distance between Louisville and Cincinnati is about that between New York and Philadelphia), 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,” he told him.
As is the case with almost every sports movie, there is some cringe-inducing corny dialog here but it’s kept to a minimum. Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman are spectacular in the lead roles as are Nichole Beharie and Andre Howard in their key supporting roles.
42 is not only an important history lesson but a rather good film as well.
If you like this recommendations: A League Of Their Own, Eight Men Out, Field Of Dreams