The new film 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s heroic effort to integrate Major League Baseball. Signed by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) endures resistance from teammates, taunting from opposing players and fans, and terrifying threats of violence against his family and himself by breaking baseball’s color line. His loving wife Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie), herself a determined warrior in the struggle for racial equality, serves as his anchor during this time of trial. Jackie Robinson’s courage inspires Americans, both white and black, and helps to ignite the emerging civil rights movement. 42 is a stirring film that illustrates the brutality of racism and the heroism of those individuals who sought to overcome the most troubling characteristic of American society in the twentieth century.
Set in the immediate post-World War II years, 42 focuses primarily on Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. A key theme in this movie is the significance of relationships between people, with Jackie Robinson as the ideal candidate for integrating baseball. Branch Rickey immediately recognizes that Robinson possesses the strength of character as well as the athletic gifts necessary to undertake this daunting task. As the film begins, Robinson tells teammates and the press that he is “just a ballplayer,” and Rickey stresses that his job as a baseball executive is solely to win games and make money for the club. But the two men forge a close relationship through their shared experience and, by the movie’s end, recognize that Robinson’s integration of baseball means much more to themselves and to the nation at large. Rickey, portrayed by Ford as deeply philosophical and troubled by a failure earlier in his career to take a stand for integration, finds redemption and a renewed love for the game through Robinson’s bravery. Robinson realizes that he is much more than only a baseball player—he has become an inspiration and a hero for Americans of all races, particularly children, and has touched the conscience of the United States.
The strong marriage of Jackie and Rachel Robinson further illustrates the key role played by personal relationships in the quest to integrate baseball. 42 presents the Robinsons’ marriage as a true love story. Jackie calls Rachel his “heart,” not only the love of his life, but also his source of strength during his times of trouble. Rachel Robinson is as much a civil rights activist as her husband, confidently entering a whites-only bathroom in a southern airport and continuously displaying a calm resolve in the presence of hostile fans in baseball parks.
42 also examines Jackie Robinson’s relationships with the press and his teammates. Besides Rachel, Jackie’s key confidant becomes Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), an African American sports reporter covering these historic events. Robinson initially is reluctant to become too close with Smith for fear of relying on other people for support. Eventually however, Robinson develops a strong friendship with the journalist, who records his accomplishments on the diamond with beautiful prose. Furthermore, Smith helps Robinson realize that he represents more than “just a ballplayer” by confiding his own hardships with racism as a black reporter. Many Brooklyn Dodgers players are wary about having Robinson on their team, pictured most dramatically when several sign a petition against his joining the club. Yet Robinson’s determination and dedicated play win over most of his fellow ballplayers, and by the film’s ending those few remaining doubters find themselves ostracized by the team. In a poignant moment, while playing in Cincinnati, a city bordering the South, Kentucky native Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) puts his arm around Robinson on the field, a powerful gesture for all fans to see.
The film depicts the cruelty of racial segregation and the valor of civil rights activists in twentieth-century America. Fans and players yell at Robinson hatefully and, in an upsetting scene, an opposing team’s manager viciously taunts him with a barrage of racist insults. Base runners spike Robinson with their sharp cleats and pitchers purposefully try to bean him; by season’s end Robinson leads the majors in hits by pitch. Perhaps most frightening, Robinson receives hundreds of letters with death threats against him and his family. Yet Jackie and Rachel Robinson, like later civil rights activists, handle this trauma with quiet persistence and sheer bravery. Branch Rickey encourages Robinson by invoking their shared Methodist faith, which Jackie emulates through “turning the other cheek” in the face of his oppressors. 42 also soberly illustrates how children imitate their elders, for both good and evil. In a disturbing sequence, a seemingly kind young boy heckles Robinson after watching his white father do the same. However, young black children see Robinson as a role model to imitate in both words and deeds. Rickey further tells Robinson that he has even noticed some white children pretending to be him on playgrounds, a hopeful sign for the future of race relations in the United States.
By expanding its story beyond the 1947 season, 42 could have illustrated better Jackie Robinson’s complexity. Following his first year in the majors, Robinson, with Rickey’s approval, resolved to fight back when persecuted on and off the field. He believed that he had proved he belonged in the Major Leagues and now had to protest against his tormentors to further the larger civil rights movement. To do otherwise would be to acquiesce to the unjust status quo. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Robinson continued to push for greater progress in racial equality. He viewed his post-baseball career in several successful commercial ventures as similarly important in opening doors to African Americans in the business world. He urged ball clubs to hire black managers and front office administrators. Major League Baseball’s failure in this area, coupled with a growing national backlash against the civil rights movement by the early 1970s, left Robinson disillusioned. Yet despite these disappointments, serious health problems, and personal tragedy with the death of his oldest son, Robinson remained dedicated to the struggle for racial equality until his death in 1972.
In 1997, Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42 for every team. Over the last few years, players of all races have worn the number 42 on Jackie Robinson Day in April. Although additional detail about his entire life could have provided a more nuanced picture of Robinson, 42 is a magnificent film that shows audiences a critical time in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. Brilliant actors give unforgettable performances in a movie that should stand the test of time not only as a sports classic, but indeed a masterful drama of American history.
If you’d like to read more about Jackie Robinson:
Promotional poster for 42 (Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures)
Jackie Robinson signing autographs in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ dugout, Ebbets Field, April 11, 1947 (Image courtesy of Corbis Images)
Robinson playing against the Boston Braves (Image courtesy of The Full Count)
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