In 1940s’ America, Major League Baseball was a white man’s world. Talented black players were relegated to Negro League teams, where they endured smaller ballparks, poor equipment and shabby transportation.
Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford: Cowboys & Aliens) upsets the applecart by bringing an African American player to the big leagues. He is not acting out of the kindness of his heart. “Dollars aren’t black or white, they’re green,” he tells his associates. The wily executive knows that his team will make more money if they can attract white and black fans to the games. A little extra media attention would help, too.
Branch picks a Negro League star shortstop named Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman: The Kill Hole) for his experiment. He brings Robinson to spring training, changes his position and puts a number — and a target — on Jackie’s back.
Jackie’s biggest problem isn’t making the league; it’s staying in the league. Players on his team would rather be traded than play with a black man. Pitchers throw fastballs at his head, and this before batting helmets. Runners spike his legs. Whenever he takes the field, fans and players alike scream racial epithets.
But Jackie Robinson is not a token; he’s an extraordinary player who happens to be black. Fleet feet and a hot bat combine to make him a formidable force for the Dodgers. While on bases he wiggles his fingers like a conjurer and hops from side to side, threatening to steal the next base. These tauntings unnerve pitchers and basmen while amusing the crowd.
While we know how the story ends, this film is more interested in how it began.
It’s a little difficult to root, root, root for the home team when they’re a bunch of bigots, but 42 is an honest look at the awful realities of being a trailblazer. In one gut-wrenching scene, the coach of the Phillies screams insults, none of which are fit to print, while Jackie bats. The scene left me squirming and a good deal of the audience hissing at the screen.
42 lives or dies on the performance of the leading man, and Boseman is more than up for the challenge. He is a charismatic presence, his eyes alive with fear, caution and anger as he navigates this new whitewashed world. Boseman shines when he takes the field. When playing the game, everything about Jackie brightens: his steps are lighter, his eyes shine with confidence and he can relax. Boseman lets the audience know this was a man made to play baseball.
Still, 42 is not a perfect film. Dialog can be hokey, and plotting gets bogged down. Director Brian Helgeland (The Order) divides his attentions between Rickey and Robinson. While Rickey is certainly an interesting figure, I was more interested in getting a better sense of Robinson, a man who was able to earn Rookie of the Year in spite of hateful people threatening to murder his wife and infant son. Robinson’s rage at racial inequality and fear of reprisal are addressed shallowly.
In spite of these flaws, 42 is a sports movie that reminds you how powerful certain cinematic clichés can be. When the music swells as Jackie takes the field, don’t be surprised if you find yourself clapping. 42 is a film that invites you to shout at the racists, gasp at injustices and cheer for Jackie Robinson.