Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.
According to Entertainment Weekly, “42” made Hollywood history with the highest-grossing premier of any baseball-themed movie. Which is true but almost beside the point. It’s not just about baseball, it’s about honor.
It’s about men doing the right thing at a time when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so.
It’s good for people dissatisfied with current progress towards universal equality to remember things were once a lot worse. And it’s good for those so proud of conspicuously having all the correct attitudes to remember there was a time when wearing those convictions on your sleeve carried a price.
“42” is the story of Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-47, that broke the color line in baseball. The number was Robinson’s, and the only number to be retired by all of baseball.
The movie, like baseball, has a star but it’s about a team.
Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) president and general manager of the Dodgers, wants to break the color line. Because he’s deeply offended by the stain of racism on the game he loves passionately. Because he’s been carrying the humiliation for years of not having done enough for a black man who was his friend.
And because he sees a tremendous opportunity in the huge number of black baseball fans and the chance to have first pick from an untapped reservoir of talent.
There’s an important point there. It’s good when people start to realize something is wrong, better when people realize it’s not only wrong but unprofitable.
Rickey needs just the right player, an extraordinary athlete but one who can keep his temper under the worst provocation.
He finds him in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Robinson plays baseball, football, basketball, and even tennis well. He’s intelligent, articulate, and high-spirited. That last characteristic having gotten him a court-martial in the Army when he refused to move to the back of a bus.
Rickey tells him he’s going to have to watch that.
“Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Robinson asks.
“No,’ Rickey replies, “I’m looking for a negro with guts enough not to fight back.”
And it takes guts for sure. The film does a great job through a series of scenes showing the daily casual humilitation Robinson and his new bride Rachel (Nicole Beharie) have to put up with. And for a while it only gets worse, mounting in viciousness as Robinson goes through training and then takes the field with the Dodgers.
But they also have a lot of support from friends like African-American sports reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) and a redneck-looking workman who approaches them, initially terrifying Rachel.
“I want to tell you something,” he says. “I want to tell you I’m behind you, a lot of us are. I figure if a man’s got the goods he ought to have a chance.”
And that’s what “42” is all about. There is no affirmative action in sports. A player has the goods or he doesn’t, and there’s no excuse for failure and no hiding ability.
Robinson had it, and once he got on the field there was no denying it.
“I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a ****n’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded,” says Leo “Nice guys finish last” Durocher (Christopher Meloni).
And therein lies the point about discrimination, and honor.
Any man of honor will be offended by discrimination. Because if you don’t give a man a chance, you’re never going to be sure you’ve deserved your accomplishments, or got them because somebody else was denied the chance.
“If he can take my job, he’s entitled to it,” says shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black).
Reese has something to prove by standing up for Robinson publicly in front of his Southern relatives. This is brilliant shown in a scene where a young boy who is starting to pick up on the detestable behavior of the grownups around him – until Reese walks over to Robinson and puts his arm around him before a game.
Many who stood up for Robinson were Southerners, and some of the worst bigots were Yankees, and thank y’all most kindly for making that point.
“42” makes all these points and more, but doesn’t hit you over the head with them. If there’s anything at all to be regretted it’s that you don’t see more about some extraordinary people, but it might just inspire you to learn more about Rachel Isum Robinson, Reese, and how people like Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) eventually changed and grew.