- 42: The Jackie Robinson Story(2013)
America’s favorite pastime has never seen a more challenging period than the post-World War II integration of Major League Baseball. Prior to 1947, it had been segregated for roughly fifty years. Writer and director Brian Helgeland’s film 42: The Jackie Robinson Story explores baseball’s postwar integration. Helgeland delivers a snapshot of the integration pioneer, Jackie Robinson, during his barrier-breaking 1947 baseball season. The film focuses on the first year of Robinson’s inspiring journey, as the young Robinson attempts to establish his legitimacy as an African-American athlete entering an all-white sport. While the film provides drama and captures certain well-known elements of Robinson’s breaking of the “color barrier,” it falls short in unearthing the roots of Robinson’s strength of character.
The film displays Robinson’s challenging transition from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, to the Brooklyn Dodger minor league team, the Montreal Royals, then finally to his first season as a Brooklyn Dodger. Actor Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Jackie Robinson captures the restrained emotionality of Robinson—a man who stands strong under the yoke of some of the most vitriolic racial discrimination suffered by a professional athlete. The most poignant example of his restraint in the face of hostility is the taunting Robinson endured from Phillies Manager Ben Chapman. Initially Chapman’s taunting was effective, as Robinson was unable to get a base hit. However, upon returning to the dugout, Robinson privately released his rage and with the help of Branch Rickey, marshaled his strength. Chapman’s taunts inadvertently resulted in a home run and sparked a newfound camaraderie amongst Robinson and a few of his teammates. This moment served as the catalyst for changing his teammates’ and spectators’ perceptions of integration into sport. The fact that a man must stand idle while suffering death threats, slurs, and other insults whilst responding only with excellence of play forces viewers to reexamine the often-praised trope of meritocracy in the face of adversity. In other words, even if a person is capable of performing beyond expectations, is forcing them to do so to prove their worth unfairly burdensome? This question was raised in the film when Jackie and his wife Rachel were met by a white man who stated that he was cheering for Jackie on the grounds of allowing a person an honest opportunity based on their abilities.
The film 42 acknowledges Robinson’s disdain for segregation by mentioning the reasoning behind his court-martial but provides nothing significant of what anchors Robinson, besides his love for Rachel. In contrast, I applaud the film in displaying an often ignored example of a nurturing and functional African-American relationship, which becomes Robinson’s refuge in the storm of his integration into Major League Baseball. Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey as a shrewd businessman, originally paints his motive to recruit a “Negro” ballplayer as purely for financial gain via his reference to money being neither black, or white, but green. However, the film depicts Rickey’s role in Robinson’s struggle as growing more paternal, with the faith-oriented Rickey guiding Robinson through segregated baseball’s gauntlet. Rickey’s strength of faith was shown in his comment to Robinson of “turning the other cheek” in the face of scorn from protesting whites. [End Page 147]
I recommend this film to those who enjoy sports and stories about defying the odds. The movie’s ability to raise the question of merit in the integration of professional sports is a solid victory. Unfortunately, it fails to address the broader issue of national identity by neglecting to carry Jackie Robinson’s life prior to baseball into the season the film chooses to examine. Jackie Robinson was an exceptional four-sport University of California at Los Angeles athlete, served his country as a commissioned officer (albeit in a segregated U.S. Army)—all while relegated to sub-human status in the pre-Civil Rights United States. These experiences, as well as...