Jackie Robinson played himself in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story.
And thus the irony of the new Robinson biopic 42: It took an actor in his first major film role — and not the man himself — to let us truly see the Brooklyn Dodgers star and pre-Civil Rights hero on the big screen.
The Jackie Robinson Story cashed in on the baseball great's popularity and was a dated film that softened the man and his struggles to break the sport's color barrier in 1947. Robinson as Robinson was a golly-gee, one-dimensional version moored in saint-like passivity.
But 42 is about honesty, not hero worship.
Stripped of decades-old mythos as a man impervious to the racist vitriol of baseball crowds, players, and even his own teammates, Chadwick Boseman's Robinson is less transcendent icon and more human, a Christ-like figure of the segregation era who struggles mightily at times to apply the biblical principle of turning the other cheek. There are moments when No. 42 wants to strike back at the haters and the hate, his patience broken and the burden of tolerance too much.
The film's writer-director Brian Helgeland gives Robinson — and us — much to despise: from the social discrimination of "colored-only" restrooms and hotels that won't lodge a Major League team with a black man on its roster to bigoted small-town sheriffs and opposing players who physically assault him. Robinson faces a daily minefield of prejudice.
And then there was the real-life heckling incident involving Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), whose deplorable racist torrents mid-game are credited with galvanizing the support for Robinson in the Brooklyn Dodgers clubhouse and from many of baseball's fans. Chapman was forced to apologize to Robinson in a made-for-media photo-op. Helgeland includes both of these moments in his film, as well as the famous pre-game Robinson hug from teammate Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), much to the consternation of booing racists in the stands.
As powerful as these scenes are, Helgeland can't resist pouring it on a bit thick at times — a boy emulating the bigotry of his father as he taunts Robinson, only to second-guess his actions when the player is later cheered by fans — but the narrative is so compelling that it sweeps away such trivialities, including the occasional sports film cliché (this is a baseball film, after all). There's also a surprising amount of good humor and warmth to lighten the film's tone.
Unlike The Jackie Robinson Story, 42 doesn't spend time on biographical elements of Robinson's pre-baseball life — we learn about his past through conversations, usually between other characters. Robinson's father left the family when he was an infant, and he grew up to be self-reliant in a California social climate far removed from the Southern racism he would encounter as a player.
He faced a court martial in the U.S. Army when he refused to sit in the black section of an Army bus, but was acquitted of all charges. A brilliant athlete of exceptional speed and grace, Robinson gravitated to baseball. Yet it was as much his mental strength off the field as it was his prodigious baseball talent on it that convinced Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to offer Robinson the chance to break the color barrier.
A proud Methodist with his own reasons for bringing a black player into the all-white major leagues, it's Rickey who reliably aids Robinson in his moments of crisis and self-doubt, along with wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), and a black sports reporter from Pittsburgh named Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who is covering the player's season and becomes a close friend.
42 features several familiar faces and talented actors — T.R. Knight, John C. McGinley, Christopher Meloni, James Pickens, Jr., Max Gail — who help form a strong supporting cast of characters, but the film belongs to Boseman and his humanizing performance of Robinson and to Ford delivering Rickey's grandiose speeches on the big-picture legacy of the player beyond baseball.
Just as 42 is a reminder of Robinson's importance to those who struggled for basic human rights of recognition and dignity during segregation, it's a reflection of those still persevering for equality.
As Rickey says, in a relevant refrain as much about baseball's color barrier then as it is to today's professional sports and the locker-room acceptance of an openly gay player, "The world's not so simple anymore ... I guess it never was. We ignored it, now we can't."
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland. A Warner Bros. release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language. Running time: 128 minutes.
Critic's Rating: ***
Jackie Robinson........................Chadwick Boseman
Branch Rickey...........................Harrison Ford
Rachel Robinson......................Nicole Beharie
Pee Wee Reese.......................Lucas Black
Leo Durocher...........................Christopher Meloni