Breaking the chain of racism4/10/2013
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, T.R. Knight, Harrison Ford
Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s methodically balanced biopic about revered baseball legend Jackie Robinson manages a near-impossible feat of offering all things to all people. Baseball fans, civil rights followers and casual filmgoers will be rewarded with a film that is equal parts history lesson and pure entertainment. Helgeland (screenwriter on “L.A. Confidential”) gets substantial support from Chadwick Boseman in the lead role as the first African American to be admitted into Major League Baseball in the modern era. Not only do Boseman’s chiseled facial features favor that of Robinson circa 1947, but also the actor’s expressive athletic comportment on the field evinces the intensity of Jackie Robinson’s nimbleness of mind and body. For his part as the Brooklyn Dodger’s visionary general manager Branch Rickey — who broke an unwritten rule of baseball to sign Robinson in the first place — Harrison Ford delivers a consummate performance of rich character study. It’s the best of his career.
Although Jackie Robinson’s story has been told many times on film, “42” has a revitalizing quality that emanates from its clearly defined dramatic goals. The thematic message is outlined in Branch Rickey’s principal demand of his new player that Robinson function as an ambassador against racism. Rickey requires that Robinson exhibit “the guts not to fight back” against the constant barrage of threats and catcalls he must endure as a black player in an all-white game. It’s a towering demand that few men could imagine living up to if put in a similar predicament.
Episodes of outrageous bigotry explode at every turn. Robinson’s own teammates conspire against him during a training period in Havana, Cuba, with the Montreal Royals. The filmmakers do a good job of condensing the potentially audience-alienating racist vitriol that Jackie Robinson was subjected to. The Phillies’ vociferously bigoted manager Ben Chapman (well played in a thankless role by Alan Tudyk) hurls every ugly racist epithet he can think of at Robinson during a series of games. The scenes are appropriately unnerving. Jackie Robinson calmly stands his ground in the batter’s box — trying to get a hit for his team — while the largely white crowd contributes to a seething atmosphere of violent intent.
The film’s replication of a historic publicity photo of Jackie Robinson and Ben Chapman standing side by side speaks volumes about the men’s mutual animosity, and Major League Baseball’s estimable effort to move the conversation forward. Robinson conveys passive resistance by picking up a bat for the men to hold so they won’t have to “touch skin.”
By telling a knotty personal story of far reaching public implications in such a straight-ahead fashion, the filmmakers allow the lore of Jackie Robinson’s wellspring of humanity to resonate with America’s ongoing disease of racism that relentlessly permeates our daily lives. “42” isn’t about ignoring the condition; it’s about addressing it in a way that models appropriate behavior. There’s a majestic authority that Jackie Robinson imparted in the number 42. Here’s a worthy film that explains both how and why he did it. CV
Cole Smithey — The Smartest Film Critic in the World — has covered every aspect of world cinema since 1997. His reviews and video essays are archived on his site: www.ColeSmithey.com.