The story of Jackie Robinson has been told in the movies before, notably in a low-budget 1950 effort called, reasonably enough, The Jackie Robinson Story. The title role in that film (which may be viewed, in its entirety, here) was played by Jackie Robinson himself—rather woodenly, it must be said, but with a dignified presence.
In Brian Helgeland’s oddly enjoyable new film 42—the title refers to Robinson’s number with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the only number retired by all of Major League Baseball—the role is played by Chadwick Boseman, a young TV actor previously unknown to me. Boseman bears some resemblance to Robinson, and he plays him as a stolid, assured man of unembarrassed self-regard, not looking for a fight but not afraid of one, either.
He doesn’t work overly hard to be likable, and as a result, he is. It’s a creditable turn—Boseman manages to hint at some texture and complexity to Robinson, which is an achievement since the role, as written and shot, is almost a pageant figure. The same can be said of Nicole Beharie, who gives an observant intelligence and a touch of sultriness to the all-but-unwritten role of Robinson’s wife Rachel.
Robinson’s struggle, in this telling, isn’t principally against the racist insults he receives as he breaks the color barrier in the Bigs in 1947. It’s against himself—against the agonizing temptation to respond in kind to the appalling snubs and taunts. Boseman lets us see the price of this; he doesn’t sugarcoat it.
When he offers him the job, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey tells Robinson that to accept him, whites have to know two things: “That you are a fine gentleman, and a great baseball player.” Rickey seems to have had an uncannily prescient grasp of white racial psychology, of how ordinary justified anger would seem like overscaled rage coming from a “negro.” Virtually every African-American who’s been a pioneer in a previously all-white field has had to try to avoid this without lapsing into servility on the other side.
Because of Robinson’s near-perfect navigating of these straights, his story is probably almost as well known to a couple of generations of elementary-school civics-class students as it is to baseball fans. I’m not sure that 42 adds anything much to it, aside from a devotional tone—again and again, the movie reminded me of an old-school Biblical epic.
Partly this is because of its ornately declarative dialogue, and the glossy, burnished look that Helgeland gives the images. But the movie is also overtly pious. Rickey was a devout Methodist, as was Robinson—it’s suggested that this may be why Rickey favored him—and he counsels his new player that he’ll have to turn the other cheek, “Like Our Savior.” He also says, more than once, “God built him to last” (only until the age of 53, as it turned out, but probably Rickey would regard this as sufficient).
Rickey’s perfectly comprehensible financial incentive for bringing black players to his team is noted in 42, early and often, by Rickey himself, and this seems intended to debunk a cynical interpretation. We’re meant to see that, for him, this action was really religious and moral. The movie even ends with Sister Wynona Carr’s wonderful gospel song “The Ball Game” (also used, to more ironic effect, in Ron Shelton’s interesting 1994 misfire Cobb).
It’s understandable if contemporary viewers find the idea that the integration of a professional sport, however overdue, can really carry this sort of cosmic import. But for many of us, baseball, with its weird orthodoxies and its ceremonial, Stations-of-the-Cross flow of action, always feels, in a way that no other sport can claim, like an allegory for Something Bigger.
I don’t mean to give the impression that 42 is like sitting through a requiem mass. It’s generously leavened with humor, and—as is often the case with religious epics—much of the fun comes from the character actors in the supporting parts. In good form here are Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Max Gail as Burt Shotton, Alan Tudyk as the intolerable Ben Chapman and Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese. John C. McGinley gives his lines an amusingly fussy, euphemistic ring in the small role of Red Barber.
Maybe the true heart of the film, however, is the performance of Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. Ford has always been a reliable star, but for most of his career, with a few striking exceptions, he’s been a leading man, not a character actor. Here, portly and fleshy-faced, with a self-delighted grin and a deep, comically ponderous delivery, Ford creates a peculiarly convincing portrait of a man of the world still ruled by his heart—a rich man who, if he were a camel, might just make it through the eye of that needle.