42 is the long-awaited biopic of Jack Roosevelt ("Jackie") Robinson who, by taking the field on opening day in 1947, broke the color barrier in American big-league baseball. It's a big, feel-good story, so why was it such a hard movie to get made? (Scripts about Robinson have been kicking around for nearly 20 years. At one point, Spike Lee was going to direct with Denzel Washington in the Robinson role. At another point, Robert Redford was considered for the Branch Rickey role.) Unfortunately, I think this speaks to an unspoken flaw in the Hollywood system. Movies are expensive and Hollywood wants receipts, not prestige "art house" pictures. Would there be a "wide audience" (read that as "would whites go?") for a movie about Robinson? (This may also explain Rickey's large role in 42 and the casting of such a known box-office force as Harrison Ford in that role.)
Based on this weekend's box-office returns - yep. Grow a backbone, Hollywood. Tell good stories, support them with a strong marketing campaign, and yes, people will buy tickets. Sort of like baseball itself, now that I think about it.
Any movie that begins with "the following is based on a true story" makes me shiver a little and I know that events here have been compressed and altered to make a dramatic story even more dramatic, but I have to run past that - it's not Ken Burns' baseball documentary; it's a studio release. If 42 makes anyone delve more deeply into the story of Robinson & Rickey, fine by me. (And there's plenty to learn there - go explore the significance of the number 42 in baseball - I'll get you started with this link.)
What struck me about this film was how much things have changed. 42 - Robinson's jersey number and the only number retired from all of baseball - focuses on the lead-up to that fateful opening day, covering his signing by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager and president Branch Rickey, his training in the Montreal farm team, and his preseason travails with the Dodgers. What I think gets so often lost in translation are the details - we boil things down to "Jackie Robinson, first major league African-American baseball player" and zoom on. And while that statement is technically true, it is out by a mile when it comes to telling the whole story.
We've forgotten how bad things were. We think open, overt, institutionalized racism only happened in the Deep South, so it's shocking to see the raw fear and hatred aimed at Robinson in cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. And it's ugly. (Character actor Alan Tudyk, who plays Phillies manager Ben Chapman made me squirm in my seat - and that exchange is historically accurate.) A scene in which a young boy, thrilled to be at a big-league game with his daddy, listens to the catcalls being hurled at Robinson and then joins in will probably make you cringe. We do teach our children and they're always watching.
The movie is strong, with snappy dialogue (the radio commentary by the Dodgers' announcer will make you smile at the turns of phrase like "this game's tighter than a new pair of shoes in the rain") and fantastic performances - Harrison Ford (who plays Branch Rickey) reminds us that he's got real acting chops under that Indiana Jones fedora and I predict a strong movie career for Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson (most of his work has been on stage or on television up to this point). I don't think it's quite a perfect movie - it's a little old-fashioned in that our heroes have no flaws in this film; it's all about Robinson acting with quiet dignity until the yahoos come around and the cigar-chewing Rickey taking the heat, bolstered by his strong Methodist faith.
But you know what?
I like old-fashioned. I like seeing people dress up to go to a ballgame. I like seeing Florida rednecks show that not all white folks thought the system of segregation should go unchallenged. I like occasionally corny dialogue (and I find myself suddenly a Pee Wee Reese fan).
You know, as the movie tells it, Dodgers manager Leo ("Nice guys finish last") Durocher was suspended for a year because he was "carrying on" with a married actress and the Catholic League didn't like that moral fault. (There were also accusations of "Leo the Lip" running an illegal dice game - that's not covered in 42.) They threatened Rickey that if he stuck with Durocher, he'd have to face a Catholic boycott of the Dodgers. Rickey was a fine, morally upstanding man who wanted to break the color line because it was the right thing to do, but he was also a tough businessman who wanted to sell tickets and he didn't care who rooted for the Dodgers, provided they paid for their tickets. So Leo, who once berated his own team by famously yelling, "I don't care if [Robinson] is yellow or black or if he has stripes like a zebra! I'm the manager of this team and I say he plays!" gets suspended for a year while Ben Chapman, who yelled the most horrible racial slurs at Robinson was ignored until some of the quotes wound up in the papers, at which time he was told to knock it off and pose for a publicity photo with Robinson.
Yes. Times have changed.
By the way, my favorite quote about Jackie Robinson isn't in 42. Ford Frick, who was the president of the National League, learned about a plot by the St. Louis Cardinals to strike if Robinson took the field with the Dodgers. Frick made it clear what would happen if the Cards went with that course of action: "If you do this, you will be suspended from the League. You will find that the friends you think you have int he press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter strict retribution. They will be suspended, and I don't care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another."
Baseball. Gotta love it.