Play ball! Spring is finally here, and as the weather warms up, so does baseball season — and baseball-themed movies. If you can’t make it to the stadium to enjoy America’s greatest pastime, then perhaps your local movie theater will get the job done with the release of “42” (out April 13), a movie that explores the issue of race in sports during the mid-20th century. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, screenwriter for “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River,” the biopic tells the incredible story of Jackie Robinson, No. 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first African American baseball player to play in the major leagues. The film is set after World War II and follows Robinson’s path from the Negro Leagues to baseball stardom, while showing the adversity he faced along the way. With a smart script that never forgets its love for the game, Helgeland creates an inspiring period piece packed with powerful performances, thought-provoking themes, and of course, plenty of baserunning.
World War II is over, and all the great baseball icons are returning from overseas to resume their places on the diamond. However, as the movie opens with a montage of vintage 1940s footage, the narrator reminds us that we are not there to hear about Hank Greenberg or Joe DiMaggio. The narrator, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), is an African-American sportswriter who follows Robinson’s career. Equal parts lanky and nerdy, he sits in the colored-only stands with a typewriter on his lap because he’s not allowed in the press box.
Before we even get a glimpse of Robinson, “42” introduces us to Branch Rickey, the innovative and far-seeing owner of the Dodgers who broke baseball’s color barrier, telling his associates that he plans on signing on a black player. Harrison Ford returns to the age of the fedora to play Rickey, a gruff, religious old man with a heart of gold who always wears bow ties and chomps on cigars. Still rugged as ever, Ford is at home in the role with ‘40s era slicked-back hair, displaying a surprising amount of emotion and humor despite his hardened exterior. Although he is dubbed “insane” by his peers, Rickey goes through with his plan, motivated by an instance of moral inaction from his past, which he later relays to Jackie in a heartwrenching scene. When questioned about his choice of Robinson, Rickey plainly states with a smirk, “He’s a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God’s a Methodist. You can’t go wrong!” There is a flaw in the move, however, in that at other times, Rickey seems to be interested only in making money.
The film transitions to Robinson playing in an all-black league. It is here that the audience gets a sense of just how fast he was as he slides into and steals bases with panache. The title character is played by Chadwick Boseman, seen in “The Express,” an actor with the charm, charisma and smile of a young Denzel Washington. Despite this being his first major role, Boseman plays the role with the quiet intensity of a man of few words and many values. After all, the movie is not solely about the man but also about what he represented in a time where the Civil Rights Movement was still far off on the horizon. Nicole Beharie portrays Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s loving wife, who is both faithful and supportive. Between the years of 1945 and 1947, Jackie goes from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League, to the Montreal Royals (the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate) to the Brooklyn Dodgers with thrilling baseball sequences peppered throughout.
As always, I was impressed by the re-creation of the historical setting of the film, a post-WWII United States. You can’t get more American than that! Helgeland transports us back to the time right before television exploded in the 1950s, a time where people got news from radios, heard ballgames narrated by fast-talking sports announcers and dressed up for sporting events. A time where big-band music still reigned supreme. A time when segregation was more prominent than ever in sports stadiums and airports.
Thanks to the cinematography of Don Burgess (“Forrest Gump,” “Spiderman”), the movie is beautiful. The use of warm colors evokes the feeling of baseball season, with plenty of orange sunshine, blue skies and dazzlingly green baseball fields.
“42” constantly reminds us that this age in American history was anything but calm and simple. The powerful themes of race and segregation are the driving forces behind this film. The introduction of Jackie Robinson into the major leagues creates a turbulent whirlwind of vicious racism and debate. Although aware that it was coming, I was shocked by the deplorable treatment portrayed by segregationists in the film, such as a scene in which a Florida police officer kicks Robinson off the field just for being black. No matter what field he steps on, he is greeted with jeers from the crowds. They shout derogatory words and tell him he doesn’t belong in the white league and shout the N-word, which is used more liberally (and convincingly) here than in any Quentin Tarantino film. When they discover that he will play for the Dodgers, some of the then-current players draft their own “Declaration of Independence,” acting like a bunch of stubborn little boys and refusing to play. After a while, they do warm up to him, displayed through cinematic storytelling that reminds one of 2000’s “Remember the Titans.”
The film also serves as an important case study on how racism is passed from one generation to the next. In one notable sequence, a young boy shouts racial slurs at Robinson just because the crowd around him is doing so. Even the 1940s Philadelphia Phillies are shown to be villainous when their manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), taunts Jackie while he is at bat. He cannot fight back, and we sympathize with the character, wanting to grab a wooden bat and smash someone’s head in on his behalf.
Needless to say, this film is inspiring, even in its cliche moments. When the music swells and you know Jackie is going to be successful, you don’t care because your heart swells too, with hope and pride for the future. As Babe Ruth said in 1993’s “The Sandlot,” “Heroes are remembered, but legends never die.” “42” is about Jackie Robinson, the enduring legend, the man who profoundly affected the people and culture around him forever. If you plan to see this movie, I recommend bringing along a hot dog, a bag of peanuts and perhaps an ice-cold beer.