Thanks, Jackie, for showing us white folks how its done.
You’re not watching a movie when you watch 42, you’re watching a legacy. You’re watching one man’s story as he started from the bottom, as a black baseball player living during the accursed segregation era of our country, who is suddenly called to greatness and is demanded to be a bigger and better person than he thinks that he is. It isn’t entertainment as much as it is a retelling of one man’s life, and everything he had to go through during the turmoil and cruelty of the 1940’s.
This man, of course, is Jackie Robinson, the black man who did to baseball what Rosa Parks did to buses. Portrayed here by newcomer Chadwick Boseman, the movie starts off showing the beginning of Robinson’s career with the Kansas City Monarchs, a primarily black baseball team who gets treated the same way at a gas station in the way a homeless man would be. Robinson doesn’t stand for it, but it doesn’t matter: he is soon recruited by a man in a black van asking him to come with him to meet with baseball executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who wants to be the first man in American history to recruit the first African-American ballplayer onto the Brooklyn Dodgers.
His assistants are baffled. “A black baseball player on a white baseball team”? What are his reasonings? Rickey makes multiple excuses, from the financial benefits to simply being different. It isn’t until later in the film where a much deeper reasoning is found in Rickey’s baseball history, though I dare not spoil it just for the sake of you being able to experience it yourself.
Eventually, Robinson has his meeting with Rickey, and he’s surprised when Rickey tells him that he wants to recruit him on the Brooklyn Dodgers. There’s only one condition Rickey has for Robinson: he wants him to control his fiery hot tempter when white players act out unfairly against him.
“I don’t want a man who has the guts to fight”, said Rickey. “I want a man who has the guts not to fight”.
There are two things that make this movie stand out from the typical baseball-biography picture: the director, Brian Helgeland, and its lead, Chadwick Boseman. Boseman, who is mostly a no-name actor, dives headfirst into his character, and inhabits the role so well that it is impossible to think of anyone else replacing him. You just need to see this guy in action: the way Boseman puts himself out there is just like how Robinson would have played on the field, from digging his hands in the dirt to firm his grip, to stealing second, third, and home bases like he was taking candy from children. It’s especially funny watching him getting ready to steal bases: he jogs his legs together and shoots a look at players with a face that says “Come at me bro” to which pitchers get obviously frustrated at him. Jamie Foxx couldn’t have done better than Boseman did.
But its just not the movements, the pitches, and the home-run hits Boseman delivers that makes him a convincing actor: his expressions are flawless, his dialogue delivery spot-on, and his performance so affectionate, with his every spoken line coming across truthfully and genuinely from the heart. I could name multiple scenes in the movie, on the field and off, that genuinely touched me. Perhaps the most memorable with Boseman was when he was out on the field ready to bat when a baseball manager starting shouting racial expletives at him. I’m not even kidding: if every other word he was shouting wasn’t a profanity, it was the N-word.
This scene was powerful, frustrating, and maddening all at once, and we could feel our anger channel through Boseman when he had to hold his tongue, when he had to walk off the field, and when he screamed in the locker room, breaking his bat against the walls in furious anger.
Oh yes, many emotions were felt in this movie, and writer-director Brian Helgeland does a great job at expressing all of them. Surprising, I think, that the same man who wrote and directed the tonally inconsistent A Knight’s Tale was able to make a movie this sincere and heartfelt. I’m being unfair though: I forgot that Helgeland also wrote the screenplays behind movies such as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, and here he brings that same sense of grounded realism from those pictures into this one. Throughout the course of the picture, Jackie Robinson grows as a person and as a player, and so do the people around him. Relationships become bigger. Bonds become stronger. Intimate details are revealed through each character to Jackie, and through his stressful, agonizing, and roller-coaster emotion journey Jackie becomes the hero that nobody expected him to be: not even himself.
If a weakness exists, I’ll admit that 42 is straightforward storytelling, with little room for originality or surprises. That’s only because we already know the history though. What 42 lacks in innovation, it makes up for in emotion, in gripping and well-written storytelling with a great cast compelling us through it, with especially one of the performances being completely unexpected. The best moment of the picture comes after Jackie grows closer to one of the players, the player encourage to not feel fear when openly associating himself with a black man. As they run back out to their respective places in the field, the player calls out to him: “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear the number 42. That way they won’t tell us apart”.