Film: Baseball legend Jackie Robinson


“42,” written and directed by Brian Helgeland, starring Chadwick Bosemen, Harrison Ford, and Nicole Beharie.

“42” is a fictionalized film biography that covers the years 1945 to 1947 in the life of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, when he rose from the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League team, to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Chadwick Boseman, whom Helgeland cast as Robinson, bears an uncanny resemblance to the young athlete. Bosemen studied archival news clips and read countless sports articles about Robinson. He spent endless hours playing baseball, capturing Robinson’s unique style.

After a successful career with the Monarchs, Robinson was signed by Branch Rickey (portrayed by Harrison Ford), a Bible-quoting Methodist, to play on the Montreal Royals, the first Black on the team. Later, Rickey moved him up to the major leagues’ Brooklyn Dodgers, which he owned.

Segregation and prejudice were rife at the time of Jackie Robinson’s rise in major-league baseball, issues that are still present, despite decades-old laws and the election of a Black president. Rickey knew that signing Robinson would create controversy—which meant publicity as well as bucks.

At one point in the film, Robinson and his wife, Rachael (Nicole Beharie), want to fly from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Pasadena, Calif., where they live. In the airport to buy tickets, Rachael says: “That’s the first time I’ve seen that,” pointing to a “Whites Only” sign on the bathroom door. Then they’re told the flight is full as they see a white couple allowed on, so they end up taking Greyhound.

Though Robinson has experienced racism before, in the majors it is relentless. Jibes, jeers, racial slurs come not only from baseball fans and players on other teams—pitchers who bean him, infielders who purposely cleat him when he reaches the bag—but from some members of his own team, who openly express their hatred.

Robinson is neither weak nor submissive. He uses logic, tact, and smarts to assert himself when refused anything he feels he has a right to as a human being.

Alan Tudyk, from the TV series, “Firefly,” plays Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. When Robinson’s up at bat, Chapman throws a continuous verbal barrage of racial epithets at him. Robinson seethes, but does not react until Chapman slings one so egregious that he heads for the dressing room, where out of sight he falls apart.

Robinson’s presence on the field became polarizing not only in baseball but also in American society. The threat of violence was palpable for him and his family; threatening letters were sent.

Sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) covers his career in the Black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. Smith travels with and suffers the same ignominies as Robinson. Smith is banned from the press box, where white reporters clack away on their typewriters, while Smith sits in the stands with his portable on his knees. Except for Ebony, established in 1945, print media was almost completely segregated; only a handful of African Americans were journalists at major white newspapers.

Jackie Robinson advocated openly for civil rights, often alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and became a leader in the NAACP.  (King described Robinson as “a freedom rider before freedom rides.”) As important a figure as Robinson was in the movement, however, he testified against actor Paul Robeson at the Committee for Un-American Activities, fearing that not complying would jeopardize his career.

He told the Committee, in part, “Every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence he has to stop it. This has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not do. Blacks were stirred up long before there was a CP and will be stirred up after unless Jim Crow has disappeared. I haven’t any comment to make except that the statement [about Blacks refusing to fight the USSR]—if Mr. Robeson actually made it—sounds very silly to me. Negroes have too much invested in America to throw it away for a siren song sung in bass.”

In a 1963 letter to Malcolm X, Robinson wrote, “America is not perfect by a long shot, but I happen to like it here and will do all I can to help make it the kind of place where my children and theirs can live in dignity.” Yet he wrote in a 1972 biography published shortly before his death: “I cannot stand and sing the [national] anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a Black man in a white man’s world.”

So how far have we come since the 1940s? In 2009, Democrat Barack Obama became the first African American to run for president and win, yet he has done little to better the lives of Blacks. Today, the economic gap between Black people and whites is steadily widening. Blacks remain the last hired and the first fired. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.

Yes, Jackie Robinson became the first African American Major League baseball player, but the idea that he improved himself for the benefit of whites puts the burden of change on people of color rather than on the institutions that, historically, have made racism and discrimination law in white America.

“42” ends on a feel-good note as Robinson is celebrated wherever he goes, and kids—Black and white—imitate him on the sand lots. The film is designed to make everyone happy (except racist bigots): All is right with the world, and the sun is shining in America! But many would question whether this is the real picture of America today.

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