On April 15, baseball will celebrate the anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson made his professional debut in the big leagues in April of 1947, the first person of color to join a Major League team that was, before his inclusion, strictly a white man's game. We celebrate the man; his accomplishments on the field, as well as off it (he helped serve as chairman of he board for minority-owned commercial bank called Freedom National in Harlem in 1964 as one of man examples), as well for paving the way for minority players to join the Majors, including outfielder Larry Doby (who, eleven weeks later, became the first black athlete to be integrated into the American League, playing for the Cleveland Indians in July of that same year), catcher Roy Campanella (Robinson's teammate for eight years), and relief pitcher Satchel Paige (teammate to Doby in Cleveland), among others. I'd feel remiss if I didn't talk about this day and not mention the first biopic on the man and the legend, titled (appropriately enough) 42: The True Story of an American Legend.
I had put this film on my list of the 5 best baseball movies I've seen (thusfar), despite me saying it's the most flawed entry on the list. I stand by original comments, but let me go though why, which is mostly because of the script and party because the film mainly focuses on his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) feels that, sooner or later, blacks will enter baseball, and he takes it upon himself to bring up one from the Negro League. A Dodgers scout settles on Robinson (Chadwick Boesman), who is playing for the Kansas City Monarchs at the time, and sends him to Brooklyn. There, he is offered by Rickey a chance to play for Brooklyn, under the condition that when he comes up, he keep his temper under control. He agrees, but his inclusion into the sport is not met with open arms. He endures harassment from the crowds, both at home and away, taunts from opposing players and managers (most infamously from Phillies skipper Ben Chapman as the film highlights), even white children verbally abuse Jackie at the instance of their fathers. Players from his own team even signed a petion against him, saying they outright refuse to play this season because of his inclusion, something which then manager Leo Durocher puts to rest quickly. (Editor's note: the harassment from outside and inside forces regarding Robinson's inclusion in the sport mostly comes in the form of racial slurs, specifically, the n-word. While using this word would have been used in context to describe the kind of hostile response he received for the review, I have decided not to include said word because I, personally, feel uncomfortable using it.) Despite the harassment from within the game and the fans, Jackie's style of play, his aggressive base-running and his skills helps him earn the respect from his teammates, and wins over the sport he plays in and loves.
As a period piece, the look of 42 is exceptionally well-done. The cinematography has a yellow/golden tint to it, giving the viewer the impression they are stepping into a moment in history that is untarnished by time, when in reality, there is much bubbling beneath the surface with efforts to integrate black men more into American life after World War II and the resistance to keep blacks and whites segregated; and for those who have lived through this time of a hard-won peace, a brewing battle for Civil Rights, or remembers that era of baseball fondly, the imagery gives off a nostalgic feel. The art direction and sets are also well-captured, especially recapturing the look of Ebbets Field (home field of Brooklyn), Shibe Park (Philly) and the Polo Grounds (the then-New York Giants), which was done via digital imagery and interior shots using Engel Stadium in Chattanooga, Tennessee as a backdrop.
Unfortunately, the script, written by Brian Helgeland (he also served as the film's director) is very cliched, and leaves little room to explore the seeds of Robinson's legacy take fruit during his time in the Majors. Lines like "Maybe, tomorrow, we'll all wear 42, so no one could tell us apart," and spiel about how Rickey doesn't want Jackie to give into hate just feel hammy and forced. Even the predictable revenge arc when Robinson gets a hit, then steals two bases and scores the winning run as a triumphant f-you toward Chapman feel kinda calculated to get the kind of reaction one would expect from a movie like this. But it's Boseman as Jackie Robinson where the film's power resides. Branch Ritchey could tell him that he wants a player to have the guts to not fight back, but at the end of the day, it's Jackie who must bear this burden alone. He walks into a sport that doesn't want him around and has to prove that he and his ethnicity belongs. He has to endure constant racial slurs from fans and fellow colleagues alike and resist the urge to swing back. He has to perform, day in, day out, in a league that might not ever respect him or give him even the faintest trace of dignity because of his skin color. This is courage beyond measure, and Boesman captures his quiet heroism splendidly. While it's a shame that the film doesn't delve deeper into Robinson's time as a Major Leaguer (several trips to the postseason, the 1955 World Series win over the New York Yankees, winning the National League MVP honors in 1949, his inclusion into Cooperstown six years after his retirement), the films does show us the player's humble beginnings into the legend he would transform into over time and why he needs to be celebrated by the sport, and by us all.
Late Edit: Jodi made an interesting suggestion about linking my past reviews, and I'm going to do just that: Here are my past reviews for this ongoing series, if you want to have a look.
Also, If you have any baseball-related movies you'd like for me to review, just leave them in the comments below, and I will review them in good time. The next installment will mark a special significance to me, and It'll be here one week from tonight or tomorrow.