A BOX OFFICE HOME RUN
Last weekend a baseball film scored the biggest opening weekend of any baseball picture in history, by topping the box office with an impressive $27-million in sales. A baseball movie you say? Yep – and it is a biopic to boot with no CGI, no car chase scenes and a different kind of superhero. I had to ask myself how a film about baseball even made the top ten of the week much less the number one film in America. This was must see, so I dashed to the theater to see what all the fuss was about.
42 is a true-story about two years in the life of baseball legend, Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier by being the first black man to sign a contract with a major league baseball team. This was one of those biopics where the under-dog, thrown into the fray, wades their way through a cesspool of adversity to triumph, and 42 did not disappoint. On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson became the Brooklyn Dodger’s newest rookie and the stakes were far bigger than just one man and a game.
The person throwing the underdog into the ring was President of the National Baseball League, Branch Rickey (played with crusty fervor by Harrison Ford). Rickey launched into a verbal attack on his protégé during their initial meeting to test the boundaries of his temper. He knew that Robinson had a no-backing-down type of personality that would have undermined any of his achievements on the field. Robinson almost fell for it until Rickey arrested his attention him with the statement “I want a player who has the guts not to fight back.” Rickey wanted the right black man who was willing to take a licking lying down long enough to alter public perceptions. He expected massive opposition and prepared Robinson for the racial firestorm to come.
When Robinson walked out into the game wearing that number 42 shirt he discovered a playing field of ravenous wolves, where he needed every ounce of guts he possessed to endure the cruelty and verbal savagery awaiting him. His one desire was to play baseball, but his life became symbolic to blacks everywhere, newly disenfranchised with segregation after WWII, and desperate for something to believe in. Jack became the hero they were looking for – a reason they could be proud to be American again.
Harrison Ford was spectacular in the Branch Rickey role as part-mentor, sage and covert activist. He commanded every scene embodying Rickey’s tough-as-nails reputation with a hint of sentimentality into the bargain. Ford dived into the role with old-world relish and every scene he did was rich in feistiness and unexpectedly disarming. I haven’t had so much fun watching Ford in a role since his Indiana Jones days.
Chadwick Boseman played the ‘scapegoat’ Robinson, willing to take on the establishment and endure the immense levels of harassment that ensued. The thirty-one year old actor met with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who had originally wanted Sidney Poitier to play the role; then much later, Denzel Washington. By the time the film was ready Boseman was chosen, (no pressure here). But, he was a good fit for the part, revealing a flesh and blood person under severe repression having to show unusual levels of restraint and dignity. He was forced to swallow the hostility of his teammates and the ferocious attacks of the opposing teams without retaliation. Boseman conveyed Jackie Robinson’s inner struggle to retain his self respect, and his rage at injustice without making him look like a self-effacing martyr.
Clean supportive performances were also turned in by Nicole Beharie (Rachel Robinson), Chris Meloni (Leo Durocher), and a particularly good portrayal of the hateful racist, Ben Chapman played by Alan Tudyk. Brian Helgeland, (Mystic River) directed and wrote the screenplay for this picture and delivered a story that still pricks at the 21st Century conscience.
On April 15 every year all of major league baseball wears the number 42 shirt for one day. This might seem a bit over the top to most, until you realize the price Robinson paid to wear that number. They wear it because on the day Jackie Roosevelt Robinson stepped onto the field the game changed forever. They wear it to honor a man who rose above the degenerative effects of racism to change a team, change a game and change a nation.