It’s really rather stunning to me that there hasn’t been a biopic of Jackie Robinson since 1950’s earnest The Jackie Robinson Story that starred the barrier-breaking baseball player as himself.
Spike Lee, reportedly, pursued the subject for many years, but never got the funding.
That’s a shame, because Lee would’ve definitely made a better film— one with more grit, depth, and ambiguity. But he couldn’t have made a more crowd-pleasing one. 42 tells an important story—a story that needs to be shared with a new generation—in a slick, highly entertaining way. As directed by Brian Helgeland, it’s a nifty piece of old-fashioned American mythmaking.
Robinson, just in case you didn’t know, was the first baseball player to crossover from the Negro League to the majors, at a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land in the south. (His jersey number, now retired in all of baseball, was 42.) He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and he was great—more importantly, he was tough and virtually unflappable. All the taunts and abuse just made him a better ballplayer.
Newcomer Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson with a pleasingly cocksure physical presence (he couldn’t talk back to racist pitchers, but he sure as hell could torment them on the base paths and in the batter’s box). He also displays a lot of charm, especially in those scenes when he interacts with his beloved bride Rachel (Nicole Beharie). (Their love story, like the rest of the film, is essentially true, but perhaps a little too perfect.)
The real revelation here, though, is Harrison Ford, playing a character role for the first time ever, as far as I can recall. As Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he’s feisty, stubborn and avuncular—and the actor sports bushy eyebrows and grandpa glasses. He’s having fun—something I truly haven’t seen Ford do in years. He obviously fell in love with the character—and with good reason. Rickey was the man.
Some of the film’s best, most ingratiating scenes involve Robinson’s evolving relationship with his teammates. At first, many are so affronted by the thought of playing with a black man, they sign a petition to get him off the team. But little by little, they are won over by his strength, both on the field and off it. (42 shows that how that great, bonding equalizer of team sports works its magic.)
The film winningly recreates two famous photographs: The first with Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who taunted Robinson with racial epithets from the dugout but—in a sign of the evolving ethos that Robinson was no small part of changing— was later forced to make nice. The second is with Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), the Dodger’s popular shortstop, who wrapped his arm around Robinson as a show of solidarity in front of hostile fans. (If that scene doesn’t give you goose bumps, nothing will.)
No, 42 isn’t a great film, but it’s certainly a good one. People will see it and love it and recommend it to their friends. And for that, this one definitely goes in the win column.