Hindsight allows us to look back and see the absurdity of racial segregation in the United States, but perspective is needed. It must be remembered that in post-World War II America, certain individuals accepted racism as a necessity. It was, simply put, how things were. Sad but true.
Stand as we may on moral platitudes today and say, “I wouldn’t have tolerated racism if I were there” (newsflash: Yes, you probably would have, and would not have thought much of it), the fact is, hindsight lets us condemn the wrongs of racism the same way folks 70 years hence will no doubt look back on American culture and find some 2013 customs ridiculous.
“42,” the story of how Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) broke the professional baseball color barrier in 1947 as a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, is an effective telling of one’s man ability not to fight back, but to be accepted. And to be sure, few wanted Robinson in Major League Baseball. Not the fans. Not the opposing players. Heck, not even Robinson’s own teammates wanted him on the field, even when it was obvious he could help them win.
Even though his support grows as he proves himself, only a select few wanted Robinson playing from the beginning: Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who knew Robinson could help his team; sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who helps Jackie navigate murky racial waters; and Jackie’s wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), a beacon of support when all else looked bleak.
One of the smart things about writer/director Brian Helgeland’s (“A Knight’s Tale”) script is that Rickey and Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) are never made out to be saints. Rickey's in it for the money: “Dollars aren’t black and white, they’re green,” he says while pointing out that Brooklyn is full of “Negro” baseball fans. Rickey is also quite religious, while the blatantly sacrilegious Durocher repeatedly makes it clear he only cares about winning.
Jackie’s teammates, including Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), take longer to come around. Again, seen from a view 66 years on, it’s obvious Jackie should be accepted, but the reality these players faced is that it wasn’t obvious at all. Helgeland doesn’t take the maudlin melodrama too far, thank goodness. Of course there's racism, but it’s merely a plot element and never the focus. That's a key point, because the heart of the film is Robinson’s story, which involves much more than idiotic white racists.
Boseman, heretofore a character actor in mostly TV bit parts, is strong and stoic as Jackie, and kudos to Ford for bringing some real charm to the cigar-chomping, bushy-eyebrowed grumbling opportunist Rickey. Seeing Ford’s performance makes you wish he pushed himself more often, rather than stick to standard action fare.
If you’re thinking “42” is yet another racial polemic and/or that you need to like baseball to enjoy the film, think again. This a good story told with conviction and respect, two words that also sum up Jackie Robinson, the man and the ballplayer, quite well.