One word kept popping into my head as I watched “42”: Gandhi.
Warner Brothers’ fine new film vividly portrays how the Brooklyn Dodgers’ infielder Jackie Robinson used his athletic prowess to break baseball’s color barrier in 1947. This chronicle of Robinson’s rookie year with the Dodgers is both an entertaining sports film and, more so, a study in non-violent protest.
Much as Mahatma Gandhi did with the British in colonial India at about the same time, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. soon would do in the Jim Crow South, Robinson stoically absorbed the scorn and hatred of those who considered him inferior, or even simian.
Rather than belittle Robinson, those who yelled, taunted, and deliberately pitched baseballs at his head soon found themselves shriveling in moral stature, as Robinson became a giant.
Unlike “Field of Dreams,” “The Natural,” or even “Major League,” this movie is much more about life outside the baseball diamond than within it. Black GIs beat Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo in 1945, only to find Jim Crow alive, well, and waiting to welcome them home.
Two years later, Dodgers owner Branch Rickey decided that his sport’s segregated world needed to bridge the division between lily-white Major League Baseball and the all-black Negro League.
Rickey (well played by the gruff, gravelly voiced Academy Award nominee Harrison Ford in his first non-fiction role) seems driven by the profit motive, observing that baseball fans come in both black and white, but their cash is all green. Rickey reckons that blacks in Gotham will show up to root for a Negro player. As the film unspools, however, it grows clear that Rickey’s intentions transcend revenues.
Rickey summons Jack Robinson, a shortstop with the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs. The California native bats .350 and, as Rickey says, “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.”
Robinson joins the Montreal Royals, with the promise that he will be brought up to the big leagues if he thrives on that Dodgers farm team.
Chadwick Boseman, a rather new face, portrays Robinson. His performance reflects the dictionary definition of the courage: “grace under pressure.” Much of this movie’s dramatic tension revolves around Robinson enduring the racial hostility of bigots on the streets (in the South and even Philadelphia), racist fans in the stands, bigoted opponents in opposing dugouts, and prejudiced teammates sitting right beside him on the bench.
The whole world is watching, and Robinson knows it. Will he turn the other cheek, as Rickey hopes, and prove that a black man can be a gentleman, as well as an athlete? Or will he explode into violence and vindicate those who argued that blacks were just too savage for “a white man’s game”?
It’s both astonishing and painful to watch Robinson at bat while Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (a disturbing Alan Tudyk) yells at him: “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” These and other harsh words tear at Robinson like lashes across his back. It is a wonder to see Robinson silently restrain himself when at least yelling back would have been thoroughly justified. Boseman delivers a memorable depiction of elegance tightly wrapped around a core of well-capped rage.
Atop writing “42,” Academy Award-winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) directs a team of first-rate craftsmen behind the camera. Production designer Richard Hoover, editors Kevin Stitt and Peter McNulty, and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Don Burgess have crafted the most visually appealing movie I have seen this year.
The period sets, props, costumes, and cars (especially Branch Rickey’s gorgeous convertible) are all mighty easy on the retinas. The result is a Big Studio atmosphere befitting the late 1940s. This artistry is equally on display in the quiet moments between Robinson and his loving wife (Nicole Beharie), among him and his teammates, and on various baseball fields, where the sports action is well paced, lit, and shot.
This motion picture’s notable supporting performances include Lucas Black as Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a surprisingly enlightened southerner. Also, Andre Holland plays sports writer Wendell Smith. As Robinson’s journalistic cheerleader, driver, and de facto bodyguard, all rolled into one, Smith loyally contends with the legend’s distance and aloofness — qualities perhaps unsurprising for someone with so much on his mind.
John C. McGinley has an amusing turn as broadcaster Red Barber, who delivers some of the film’s funniest lines. He describes one game as “tighter than a pair of shoes after a rainstorm.” Barber also is known as the predecessor of and mentor to Baseball Hall of Famer Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers, from Brooklyn in 1950 to Los Angeles today. Scully is the best sportscaster alive, full stop. Still behind the microphone at age 85, his gilded tones should grace the airwaves until he is a centenarian.
In a bait-and-switch that actually adds value, “42” mercifully avoids the rap music that dominates the film’s trailer and TV commercials. The actual movie spares audiences that pain and indignity. Instead, the soundtrack features big-band jazz from the era as well as Academy Award nominee Mark Isham’s decent score. His music appropriately accompanies the film, save for some excessive, high-volume flourishes in the closing scenes.
Another quibble: Wendell Smith’s opening narration refers to “African-Americans.” This is a complete anachronism, as a sportswriter in 1947 would not have used a term that no one heard until Jesse Jackson inflicted it on black Americans in the late ’80s.
As illustrated in a stirring scene in which baseball fans and (with Robinson present) players of many colors proudly sing “The Star Spangled Banner” on Opening Day at Ebbets Field, native-born blacks simply were Americans back then, like everyone else.
No one was segregated as “African-Americans.” How annoying that this hyphenated, divisive term ever arose. And in a movie set in the 1940s, it is thoroughly out of place.
But, this and Isham’s modicum of orchestral overzealousness are just two pop flies in a movie that — as Jackie Robinson did — swings and smacks the ball, straight over the fence.
Deroy Murdock is a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Email him at deroy.Murdock@gmail.com. Read more reports from Deroy Murdock — Click Here Now.