The story of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues in 1947 is a perfect example of how history progresses, especially in the area of civil rights.  Branch Rickey couldn’t have been the only general manager to look at the talent in the Negro Leagues and wonder “What if…”  So the broad historical trend was there.  It was going to happen eventually.  And yet Mr. Rickey was the first and for a while only GM to have the courage to actually sign a black player for a major league team, knowing full well that it would mean his organization would be banned from scouting minor league teams in the south.  There’s your great man theory of history.  I suspect that usually it’s a combination of both.

Rickey was also smart in that he knew he had to wait for a player who was not only good enough to win over fans with his skill but also of a certain demeanor.  This player couldn’t rise to the racial taunts, the bean balls, and the raised spikes of the base runners.  Robinson who’d actually been acquitted in a court-marshal in the army for insubordination had learned these lessons and was perfect for the position.

He was also a hell of a ballplayer.  I think his importance as a cultural figure sometimes overshadows that.

Chadwick Boseman takes on the roll of Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey in Brian Helgeland’s 42.  This story has been told on the screen a couple of times before.  Robinson played himself in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story and there was a TV movie called The Court Marshal of Jackie Robinson with Andre Braugher playing the role that concentrated on his early life, especially his army experience.  Neither of those efforts are particularly well remembered.

42 is respectful, probably too much so.  This is the problem with making a movie about such an icon; the filmmakers were afraid to make him human.  In 42 Jackie has the patience of a saint.  Sure there’s a scene or two where he gets frustrated and wants to fight back, but you never really doubt that he will control his temper.  Jackie’s struggle is only seen from the outside; we don’t get in his head at all. 

Another problem is the plot.  It just doesn’t build.  There’s one incident after another and there’s no real climax other than clinching the pennant.  It gives the film a sterile tone.  Everything is too compartmentalized and clean. 

Boseman does well enough in the role.  He is lithe and fit like Robinson was, more likely to hit a single and steal second and even third than to smash a home run.  He does his best, given limited opportunity, to display Robinson’s inner turmoil.

Harrison Ford’s turn as Branch Rickey is a little broad.  It’s not quite as bad as what you might assume from watching the previews but there’s very little nuance. 

Obviously race is still a tricky thing in this country.  It is hard to make a film about it, especially if it includes an icon like Jackie Robinson.  Spielberg succeeded with Lincoln and there are probably other examples.  But lessor filmmaker’s feel the need to hold back and not court controversy.  42 isn’t a bad film.  The audience I saw it with enjoyed it.  But I can’t help but think of the irony that a film about two bold and brave men should be so timid.


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