The very best films that feature a sport don’t require a viewer to understand, or like, the game: Rocky, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Men with Brooms, are some films that come to mind. I’m adding 42 to that list.
The path that ended with the Nonagenarian and I at the cinema for an 11:21 AM showing began in Kansas City, MO, at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, a few years ago. My limited knowledge of baseball did not include the segregation of professional ball into separate leagues based on skin colour. At the NLBM I learned that Jackie Robinson had spent his minor league years in Montreal, while he waited to be called to The Show. Montrealers treated him with respect and appreciated his skill.
42 begins with the recruiting of Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs, a legendary team of the Negro Leagues. It ends when the Brooklyn Dodgers win the pennant with the first integrated major league baseball team. That short span in baseball history changed the game forever.
42 is dense with well known names and faces – most of them character actors that provide depth in the backfield seldom seen in films today. Harrison Ford ditches the dashing hero image for a crooked bow tie, gnarly eyebrows and the passion of a man with a guilty conscience who wants to right a wrong. There isn’t a bad performance by anyone, and the cast list is extensive. The face with which I was least familiar was that of Chadwick Boseman, who played Robinson. My ignorance was my loss. His performance is extraordinary in a film that is abundant with them.
Jackie Robinson faced persecution, humiliation, injury as often as he faced pitchers during that period. If the film, “based on a true story” is believed, he faced his tormentors with strict instructions from Branch Rickey, a Dodgers executive, to turn the other cheek. The recreation of one incident when an opposing team member taunts him in front of a stadium full of fans is harrowing. When Robinson, pushed to his limit, finally allows himself to release his rage – we in the audience feel the release too. Rickey’s strategy of building sympathy for Robinson to engender acceptance is artfully executed in the film to the same end by director Brian Helgeland.
I have dismissed a biopic or two because I “knew the ending.” Don’t dismiss this one, the story is in the details and the journey, not only of Robinson and Major League Baseball, but American culture.