This Monday, every player in Major League Baseball will wear the same number on his jersey: 42, which was Jackie Robinson’s number when, in 1947, he became the first black player in the majors, playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Today, baseball celebrates April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day. But 66 years ago, not everyone saw his hiring as cause for celebration — and the earnestly grandiose biopic 42 means to illuminate that history-making moment, in which racial vitriol met its match in a ballplayer who let his talent do the talking.
Not without a struggle, of course. When Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, in a pitcher’s mound worth of makeup) tells a promising Negro League shortstop (Chadwick Boseman) that he’s hoping to hire him to play at Ebbets Field, he does not make shattering an eight-decade tradition of segregated baseball sound like it’ll be a walk in the park.
“People aren’t going to like this,” Rickey growls at the rookie by way of urging him not to take the bait when he gets baited. Better, says the GM: He should turn the other cheek and win by playing great ball.
The 26-year-old Robinson wants clarification — “You want a player who hasn’t got the guts to fight back?” — and gets it in almost the same words the real Jackie Robinson got when he played himself in the 1950 drama The Jackie Robinson Story: “No, I want a player who has the guts not to fight back.”
That took a lot of guts, what with death threats, jeers from the stands, resistance from white teammates and baseball executives determined to bar him from their parks. Writer-director Brian Helgeland lays out the history in bold, clear strokes, with little nuance but lots of atmosphere.
It helps that this was an era when color commentary was still colorful; here, much of it is provided by John C. McGinley, doing what longtime Morning Edition listeners will recognize as a fine Red Barber impression.
Under Barber’s watchful gaze, Robinson endures injuries, racial slurs and viciousness, all of it on one side. And all of that will build sympathy for the talented rookie, growls Rickey at one point, in a line that sounds like Helgeland explaining how his movie works.
And sure enough, the writer-director never lets Boseman play Robinson for anything other than saintly nobility, and if that’s not inherently interesting, it would still be hard to watch 42 without feeling protective of its hero as prejudice spews so openly.
Or without being heartened when other characters “evolve,” as it were: Kentucky boy Pee Wee Reese, for instance, throwing his arm supportively around Robinson’s shoulder and standing with him at midfield as a Cincinnati crowd jeers (a real-life incident), making a case for being on the right side of history.
As he’s doing that, you’ll hear the score doing plenty of heavy lifting, putting a sort of musical halo around Robinson’s every move. Definite overkill — gilding the lily, though it’s all but irresistible. As is the tug of 42, a profile in real-life courage that would be stronger as a movie if it weren’t quite so intent on underlining teachable moments.
“Maybe tomorrow,” says Reese, “we’ll all wear 42, so they won’t tell us apart.”
Shameless, sure. But effective.