April 15th, 2013 by Bruce Edwards
If we only realized it, this is also the case with every life lived, both yours and mine, and the stories told about each of our lives. Baseball, for those who love baseball—and even those who don’t—can become the grand stage upon which these dilemmas and struggles and triumphs play out. And in 42, these are eloquently depicted through the lives of Jackie Robinson, Rachel Robinson, and Branch Rickey. Finally, a baseball movie without irony, that is what it is.
This new movie, the “true story” of the rise of Robinson to become the first black player to break Major League Baseball’s all-white color barrier, tells a only a small portion of what has to be endured to fuel righteous changes, but it more forcefully portrays what changes must occur in oneself in order to enact them.
In the Robinsons and in Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who convinces Jackie to accept his contract to play in the National League, we witness the reasons why Rickey sought for and fought for this ballplayer: the Jack Robinson in whom he saw the talent, the bravery, and the self-control who could challenge the racism inherent in professional sports, and the American cultural fandom that worshipped its heroes.
Their stories come together with precision in this movie, providing for the audience not only examples of valor, but compelling evidence of how goodness and sacrifice, fearlessness and determination, can achieve the impossible. It happened, not once upon a time, but in 1947, in Brooklyn, in the National League. Since this is primarily a movie review, not just the summary of the lives of courageous individuals, one must evaluate 42 as a cinematic text. Yes, we can be inspired by the protagonist’s noble and risky deeds, but if this doesn’t work as a movie, it’s no more than an intrusive sermon.
To work, the characterization has to be well-meshed with the keen outlay of particularized baseball elements, and thus care must be paid to the plot, the set design, the accuracy of at-bats, and so on, lest 42 truly become a mere fairy tale.
So, gratefully, I can testify that the casting and the script and the detail all conspire to bring the Robinson baseball era to life. The Robinsons, played with energy and integrity by Chadwick Boseman & Nicole Beharie, and Branch Rickey, played by the estimable, acerbic Harrison Ford, simply are superb. Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers, and other ballpark subtleties, live again. Minor league cities are recreated with skylines, and vintage cars, and hotels. Surely someone who loved baseball, and the history of baseball, put the right package together as a labor of affection.
Those who play other ballplayers look like ballplayers; newspaper reporters have the same inane questions; the umpires are just as clueless. But, most of all, to keep the movie true to its life and times, the vicious racism of management, teammates, and fans, is on display, graphically underscored by the language and epithets that accompany racist behavior.
(Such vocabulary is scattered throughout, but is particularly intense in a ten minute sequence in the Dodgers’ opening series with the Phillies, and centered in the despicable treatment of Robinson by the Phillies’ manager. If you want to know more, there is a brilliant, in-depth biography of Jackie by Arnold Rampersad, a Bowling Green State University graduate, well worth your effort to track down and read.)
Jackie’s prime athleticism and baseball skill, Rachel’s resilience and support in face of threats to her and Jackie’s life, and Branch Rickey’s Biblically-sharpened wit, are standouts. (I have to highlight Ford’s Branch Rickey as a masterful evocation of the Scripture-quoting, Christian gentlemen Rickey was; he captures his righteous motivation and forthrightness with his ballclub in his determination to integrate the Dodgers’ roster.)
Rickey famously said, “Luck is the residue of design,” and while this is thought to be a comment about baseball strategy, and it is, Rickey didn’t really believe in luck. He believes in God. And thus he understood that in Jackie he found what every victim of oppression knows by heart, that no injustice will fix itself; no, men and women of courage and self-restraint, must rise up and use the opportunity set before them to challenge and defeat the status quo. Together Rickey and Robinson made a formidable pair. Jackie says in the movie, “God built me to last.” Indeed, He did.