Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fair Ball, Foul Game

Reel To Reel:  42

Going Rate:  Worth full price admission
Starring:  Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni
Rated:  PG-13
Red Flags:  Adult language, racism, copious uses of the n-word (but not as much as in Django Unchained)

Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line years before the peak of the civil rights movement. But he couldn't have done it without the backing and vision of Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, who recruited and nurtured Robinson, clearing his path from minor-league ball into the majors. If Robinson is the hero on the field, Rickey is the hero in the front office, and 42 gives both due credit.

Rickey is played with a lovable grizzled saintliness by Harrison Ford, proving the aging Han Solo has a few memorable roles left in him. He makes the decision to bring Robinson (Boseman) out of the Negro leagues with ambiguous motives; at first we're not really sure whether Rickey is making a political statement or a business decision. It becomes clear in their first meeting as he lectures Robinson on what he will face and what will be expected. "Your enemy will be out in force," Rickey says. "But you cannot meet him on his own low ground."

Robinson seems to be okay with that, preferring to prove himself as a heavy hitter and base stealer, cheered and booed respectively by black and white fans sitting in separate sections. Robinson has little dialogue compared to his on-field performance, or maybe it just seems that way. We also see the bitter racism of the south and its muted-but-active northern version. A film like 42 could easily degrade into a preachy spectacle, but not here. His teammates, resistant to integrate, slowly come around when they find Robinson, jersey number 42, will get them to a pennant.

Little of Robinson's life outside of baseball makes the screen aside from his relationship with his wife Rachel (Beharie), number one fan and quiet source of strength. We also have a black sportswriter, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who serves mainly to help tie together narrative loose ends as he types out details of Robinson's career from the bleachers. Hollywood's minor leagues fills out the most of the roster, which keeps the film from striking out due to egos. According to, producers Howard and Karen Baldwin developed this film after their previous project Ray became a hit. Just like that picture, they ran into difficulty getting this one off the ground, which either tells you something about Hollywood executives or Hollywood's racial philosophies, or both.

42 works because it is content to be a good baseball movie and not an epic biography of Jackie Robinson. Although it has a few compulsory motivational speech scenes inherent to sports flicks, those scenes are handled with economy. I read where Spike Lee was once working on a Robinson picture with Denzel Washington as lead. I thought of how much more charisma Washington could've have brought to the role, but this film isn't about charisma -- it's about baseball.

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