My first understanding of the moral imperative of racial integration probably came from my father. He had been a talented baseball pitcher in college (with, I’m told, an impressive all arms-and-legs delivery and a tremendous “slider” ball). I think some part of him always regretted giving up that tentative career for a sensible job and the role of family man, and he often talked baseball. I listened especially well during the fifties and sixties when that conversation turned to civil rights, and he would tell of having played against, and even at times bunked with, what were then known as “Negro” baseball players. That he considered them unquestionably equals no doubt helped spark my own involvement in the civil rights movement (especially during 1964–68).
It is therefore through that lens that I watched 42—the story of Jackie Robinson becoming the first to integrate major league baseball. On April 15, 1947, he took the field as no. 42 with the Brooklyn Dodgers (against the Philadelphia Phillies) and changed American history. So the film’s harrowing scenes of racial hatred did not come to me as re-creations of a different time, as they necessarily must for young viewers, but instead recalled my own later experiences in situations not so far removed.
I attribute much of the film’s success to the direction of Brian Helgeland who effectively mixed historical background material (such as scenes involving “white” and “colored” restrooms), marvelous baseball action, sidelights on Robinson’s personal life, various behind-the-scenes business considerations (including racist personnel), and much more, shaping it into an artistic whole—if even with a dollop of what some critics have labeled outright sentimentality. The result is a convincing American biography and a genuinely inspiring film.
Robinson, as one of civil rights’ noblest heroes, is brought to life with some skill by Chadwick Boseman. He is joined by other effective actors, notably Harrison Ford, who plays the Dodgers’ boss—a visionary and homespun American character named Branch Rickey. Rickey, too, is something of a hero, and at times, not surprisingly, manages to upstage Robinson.
At one point in 42, there is a brief vignette of Rickey idly holding a baseball with the thumb-and-two-fingered grip that bespeaks his own nostalgia for playing the game. It sets up for me a metaphor for the story: Rickey tosses the ball to Robinson, and Robinson knocks it out of the park.
Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four)