Of all the civil rights pioneers in this country probably the least appreciated is Jackie Robinson. Most people know that he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, but few realize the racial taunts, abuse and humiliation he endured to ensure a pathway for other African-Americans to follow. His ability to outlast the assault on his dignity and produce a Hall of Fame career speaks volumes about his courage as well as his talent.
Robinson’s legacy is in the news this year because of the release of “42,” the biopic that focuses on his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. For those who do not know the story, Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey decided in 1945 that it was time to break the color barrier and looked for the ideal player who encompassed the ability and the temperament to be a successful trailblazer. Robinson proved to be that man.
In the movie, Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson. He is not a well-known actor, but is the spitting image of the man he portrays. Harrison Ford also looks the part of the crotchety Rickey and together they provide the chemistry of two pioneers who are changing history. The most pivotal role may belong to Alan Tudyk who plays Philadelphia Phillies’ manager and chief villain Ben Chapman and is merciless in trash talking Robinson with the “N” word. The film is worth seeing simply because it gets its point across.
As a cinematic marvel, “42” is lacking. It’s one of those Hollywood films that takes artistic license beyond the pale. In a word, it’s too schmaltzy. There are scenes that are overdramatized and in at least one case blatantly false. For those that don’t know Robinson’s story it may not matter, but for those that do, it’s enough to make you cringe.
The “misdirection” of the film should not keep people from seeing it. It’s too of an important piece of history to let a bit of cinematic overplay spoil the overall effect. People, especially those too young to understand the Jim Crow era, should see it. Hopefully it will motivate those viewers who didn’t have a clue to the treatment of black ballplayers to research the matter further.
There are two excellent books that focus on Jackie Robinson and the age of integration. The first is “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season,” by Jonathan Eig. It’s an in-depth look at the barriers Robinson was forced to overcome to survive his indoctrination into Major League Baseball.
The second is the best book I’ve read on the subject. It’s called “Baseball Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” and was written by Jules Tygiel. It covers the whole era of integration from the early attempts to integrate the game to the last team to add an African-American player. It wasn’t until 1959 that the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate. Even then, segregation was still widespread at spring training sites.
Despite its cinematic flaws, “42” is an important film that everyone should see. It’s not so much a baseball film as it is a piece of American history. Fighting racism is an ongoing process and the movie provides an important benchmark to see how far we’ve come and need to go.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.