I went to see the Brian Helgeland directed film over the weekend with my parents and my youngest son.
My mother really enjoyed it, saying it was the best movie she’s seen in the theater in a while. My youngest son liked it as well and he’s not generally one to heavily praise things. My dad enjoyed it.
The reason why I think this is important is because knowledge about Robinson’s life and his effect on not only baseball, but the rest of the world may affect one’s appreciation for the film.
In a sense, I think this movie was made more for my mom and my youngest son than for someone who is aware of Robinson’s story. My son has read books on Robinson, but young reader-type books don’t necessarily go into depth on Jackie as a person. Jackie Robinson was just as much an American history character as he was a legendary baseball character. By breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, he advanced the time table in which African American athletes were able to make a living and show their value in the most visible professional sport at the time.
42 excels at creating a story about courage and tolerance through the Jackie Robinson character. Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson and the story begins near the tail end of his Negro League career. Branch Rickey, played by Han Solo, I mean Harrison Ford is the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers (who also had a piece of the team) and has a goal of de-segregating baseball, which had an unwritten rule going back to the 1880s that only white players would be allowed to play. He wanted the right person who could withstand prejudice and not fight back, which could ruin it for future African American baseball players.
There’s a memorable quote that was shown on the trailer and really is the theme of the movie.
Jackie Robinson: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?
Branch Rickey: No. I want a player who’s got the guts *not* to fight back.
During the film, Robinson continues to ask Rickey why he wanted to bring Robinson to the Dodgers and break the color barrier. Rickey tells a story of an African American ball player who was refused a room at a hotel because of his race. Rickey was able to help him out, but it stuck with him and made him want to end discrimination in baseball. But as the film was ongoing, I kept asking myself why Robinson wanted to be the pioneer for all African American athletes.
I presumed that Robinson didn’t want to turn down the money that Rickey was going to pay him to play in the major leagues. He and his wife Rachel were married right about this time. And the fame would help him with future money making opportunities. I presumed that Robinson saw Rickey’s plan and felt like he could be the person to change the game. But, it’s not like Robinson was a baseball fan. According to what I’ve read, he didn’t even like playing it all that much and had to be talked into getting a tryout for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. The film didn’t have any answers and that’s where it was flawed to me. The movie needed to be more about Jackie and what was inside him that made him want to take the nastiness from the fans rather than a lesson on his tolerance. We get the tolerance part. That should be inferred. But I wanted to know more about Robinson’s makeup.
Early in the film, when Robinson sees his newborn son, he makes a comment that his father left him when he was six months old and that he was never leaving his son until he died. You also saw his mother in one scene helping his wife Rachel take care of the baby. But there’s nothing in the film about his childhood which took him from Cairo, GA to UCLA. If the movie is going to be about his tolerance, what was it in his younger days that gave him the ability to be that way? This movie doesn’t answer that question.
In the end, I think the film wanted to be a Disney version of Jackie Robinson, except, you can’t really do that if it’s about racism. You can’t tap dance around the N word. Thus, it’s a Disney version of his story with gratuitous scenes of white fans and players calling him the N word. One of the baseball writers I read daily called it the 6th grade version of the Jackie Robinson story and I think that’s right on.
The movie ended with Robinson hitting a homerun to clinch the pennant for the Dodgers. He did hit a homerun in that game, but it wasn’t the winning run of the game.
For baseball fans, at least the baseball looks good. There’s not a lot of it, but there are very few things to nit pick about. In fact, the only thing that bothered me was the bad jumps Robinson kept getting and still stealing bases. Robinson did really change the game when it came to using his speed to upset the timing of the defense and pitching. But I’m sure he got good jumps. I think there was just a disconnect in filming the movie and having to wait for the pitcher to release the baseball before showing Robinson running.
Boseman looks like an athlete and it helps the realism of the ball playing. The most famous Dodgers’ player on that team after Jackie was Pee Wee Reese who is played by Lucas Black, most remembered by me as quarterback Mike Winchell in the movie version of Friday Night Lights. In more Friday Night Lights trivia, Derek Phillips, better known as Billy Riggins from the TV version of Friday Night Lights, plays catcher Bobby Bragan who is completely against Robinson being on the team, but then changes his mind after he sees how courageous Robinson is in the face of all the racism.
The most intriguing character in the whole film to me was Wendell Smith, played by Andre Holland. Smith was an African American sportswriter who was instrumental in Rickey choosing Robinson. It wasn’t shown in the film, but according to what I’ve read, Smith advised Rickey in choosing Robinson. Smith also followed Robinson around his one season in the minors and during his rookie season with the Dodgers, writing about him constantly. He wasn’t allowed in the press box with the white writers, so he carried a portable typewriter with him and wrote in the stands. In the film, Smith comes off as Robinson’s butler, but his role in the history is far more significant.
If anything, what I got out of seeing the film was that I needed to dust off my books about Robinson and that I need to do more research on Smith. His historical character fascinates me, even if he’s shortchanged in the film.
If I was to rate the film, I’d give it a B- or so. But to my mom and my youngest son, who seemed to be the target audience, they gave it an A.
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