“42” covers roughly two years in Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) life, the period in which he went from unknown minor league player to the man who broke the color bar in professional baseball. In 1947 there were 400 players in Major League Baseball, 399 white team members and Robinson. Recruited by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first baseman withstood racism from teammates, fans and opposing players to become an icon of the game and civil rights movement.
“42” is the Reader’s Digest version of Robinson’s history making career, a film that isn’t much different from the 1950 biography that starred Robinson himself.
It’s a melodramatic Hollywood biopic with one big moment after the next buoyed by a swelling soundtrack, but writer / director Brian Helgeland hasn’t shied away from portraying some of the harder edged aspects of the story.
From subtle racism—a radio announcer referring to Robinson as “definitely brunette”—to the time’s socially accepted hate—a young ball fan learns racism by watching his father chant terrible rhetoric at Robinson—to the baseball-bat-to-the-head hate of a Phillies coach verbal assault, “42” captures the tone of a shameful period in our recent history in no uncertain terms.
It’s often hard to watch—even though the vernacular was undoubtedly cleaned up from what might have really been said at the time—but it clearly shows the roadblocks Robinson had to overcome to succeed.
Boseman and Ford head up the large ensemble cast.
Boseman, previously best known for his television and stage work, bears an uncanny resemblance to Robinson, but there is more to the performance than looks. Bubbling under his calm exterior is the tenacity, talent and strength of character that made Robinson the first African-American baseball legend.
Ford hands in a considerably showier performance as the gruff old coot Branch Rickey. It’s cigar and eyebrow acting as Ford hurumphs his way through the role in an entertaining, but decidedly hammy fashion.
The onscreen baseball feels real, is exciting and nicely shot, but just as the best sports movies are never actually about the game, “42” is less about stealing bases than the overall effect Robinson had on baseball and race relations.
“42” feels old fashioned in its lack of cynicism. It’s the kind of biography Hollywood used to make; a pop culture hagiography about a celebrated figure. In this case the subject actually earned the bone fides. Robinson was an inspiration then and his story still resonates today.
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