Monday, August 5, 2013

42 - The story of Jackie Robinson

For those of you who may not know, Jack(ie) Robinson was the first African-American to play in major league baseball.  He was recruited in 1947 by a man named Branch Rickey, who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The film "42" about him breaking the barriers in major league baseball was released earlier this year.  It is an excellent film with only a few moments not based on historical fact.

Honestly, I put off seeing it because as a child of the south born only a couple of years after the time frame of the film, I knew what I would see.  I've lived in the south my entire life.  And as I have mentioned before, I was a sapient life form during the turbulent 1960s - saw the civil rights movement take wing, watched a filmed version of Dr. King's famous "I have a dream" speech with the amazing crowds surrounding him.  As a thinking person I turned away from some of my friends when they expressed bigotry and hate.  I have become less tolerant of such things as I have aged.

But back to "42".  It is a "no holds barred" story showing it like it was.  Some of the comments in the film and actions of some of the characters made me uncomfortable.  Some made me downright furious, primarily because I knew it was a realistic depiction of that baseball season when a talented player named Jack Robinson became the first of his heritage to break the barrier.  The movie is the story of his rocky road.  Not only does he have to face the crowds, some of whom are less than thrilled to have him on the team, he has to face teammates who start out not so thrilled, either.  It is a story of growth for most of them as they learn to work together.

As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman, not only bears a physical resemblance to the man himself, but he plays him with dignity, resolve, and a good sense of humor.

Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Rickey is a complicated man who loves the game of baseball and Christianity.  He knows what will happen when the first African-American player joins a major league team.  He searches for the perfect man to be the first, a man who "has the courage not to fight."  Ford gives a surprising performance immersed in a character you have never seen before.  He didn't miss a beat.

Nicole Beharie plays Rachel, Jackie's girl friend who becomes his wife.  She is his anchor and his love.  A beautiful woman, Ms. Beharie brings a layered performance to her character.  Mrs. Robinson founded a scholarship fund in her late husband's name.  You see the strength of character in the portrayal of the woman who did that.

Christopher Meloni, of "Law & Order: SVU" and also last season's "True Blood" plays Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Actually, I remember Leo Durocher as an older, frankly speaking man from my childhood.  My dad used to watch baseball on television every Saturday when I was little.  So I saw a lot of the game.  (Later he took up golf and I didn't watch much baseball any more.) Meloni gives a good performance as the brash Durocher.

Andre Holland plays Wendell Smith, an African-American reporter hired by the team to chaperone Robinson and chronicle his exploits on the diamond.  Since Robinson cannot stay in some of the hotels with his teammates, Smith takes him to homes of prominent African-Americans in the towns where they play.

In the film, there is an early incident that takes place in Sanford, Florida.  If that town sounds familiar to you, it's probably because that's where George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin.  In a bit of ironic ugliness, Robinson was staying there and asleep in a prominent citizen's home.  A man came to the house and said other men were coming for Robinson (he didn't call him that) and he'd best get out if he didn't want to get hurt.  So Wendell Smith wakes him up and speeds him out of town finally telling him why they left and why Mr. Rickey instructed him not to tell Jackie the reason.  Rickey was concerned Robinson would want to stay and fight.  Given the time it takes to get a feature film produced and in the theaters, I am certain the recent incident in Sanford had not happened at the time they made this film.  Like I wrote, ironic ugliness.

This film is a salute not only to Robinson, himself, but to all the heroic men and women who broke down barriers to claim their rights and have the careers they wanted.  It is a very real portrayal of the struggles and obstacles faced by this man and all others who broke barriers.

The film is a triumphant portrayal of the indomitable human spirit, but with a liberal sprinkling of the "n-word" as you can probably imagine.  There are also many examples of meanness and bigotry.  But it only makes Mr. Robinson more of a hero.

And why is the film called "42?"  It was Jackie's Robinson's number, the only number to be retired from baseball.  Every April, ALL major leaguers wear number 42 in his honor.

I knew I liked baseball!

Until next time...   

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