As the All Star Game arrives and the Twins continue their annual descent to the bottom of the standings, it’s heartening to have “42,” now available on DVD. The film recounts the breakthrough of Jackie Robinson into major league baseball, with young Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and veteran Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager. Rising somewhat above the run-of-the-mill sports flick, it may not delve far enough into its characters’ psyches, yet it serves as a valuable reminder of why, every April 15, all major leaguers wear number 42.
Director Brian Helgeland’s screenplay starts with Rickey saying that he plans to bring the first African American ballplayer to play for the Dodgers and thus win the National League pennant. After strenuously objecting, his subordinates help him wade through a stack of dossiers of potential candidates. They settle on Robinson, a World War II vet and UCLA star athlete currently playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.
Their only hesitation stems from his having been court-martialed for refusing to give up his bus seat to a white man — perhaps a sign of an uncontrollable temper that will surely be tested in the racially-charged atmosphere of postwar America, north and south. Indeed, when we first see Robinson, he is challenging a redneck gas station attendant about his ramshackle place’s segregated toilet facilities. But Rickey, summoning Jackie to New York, insists that he “have the guts not to fight back” as a precondition to his hiring him.
His ability to restrain himself is tested when he and his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie) move from Pasadena to spring training in Florida, encountering bigotry in more and less explicit forms. (The filmmakers admit to having “dramatized” some of these incidents, but they have the ring of historical authenticity.) The Robinsons are befriended and aided by newspaperman Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), whom Rickey has hired to chronicle Jackie’s rise to the bigs. A sympathetic reporter, Wendell tells Jackie that he can’t even sit in the same press box with white reporters.
Jackie also gets the somewhat grudging support of his minor league manager (Brett Cullen) and the irascible Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni). His teammates are another matter: some of them like Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) and Bobby Bragan (Derek Phillips) are, to say the least, reluctant to share the field with a “colored” man — to say nothing of the shower room. Others, like Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) and, most importantly, Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), come around to accepting and sticking up for Jackie in dramatic ways.
Boseman brings the necessary sense of dignity and stubborn independence to the role, letting Robinson’s pent-up anger spill forth in a few critical scenes, such as one involving Ben Chapman, the race-baiting manager of the Phillies (played by Alan Tudyk). Just as important for movies of this genre, he has the athletic build and chops to make us suspend disbelief, for the moment. (Rachel Robinson has complimented Boseman on getting her late husband’s batting stance and base-stealing dance just right.) For his part, Ford hams it up egregiously as Rickey, a pretty colorful character himself, initially making us believe that he’s breaking the color barrier because “money isn’t black or white; it’s all green.” Perhaps his best scene with Boseman, however, is one where the Methodist manager reveals his deeper motivation for opening the gates to black men to demonstrate their ability and character on a national stage.
“42” is rated “PG-13” for language, including the frequent use of racial slurs. Since it has been decades since the first Jackie Robinson biopic — which starred Robinson as himself! — it is high time to produce another one explaining why #42 is featured as a retired number in every major league ballpark and recalling why April 15 isn’t just about paying our income taxes.