My grandfather was a huge baseball fan. In fact, I can’t think of baseball without thinking of him. He was a fan, a Cleveland Indians fan, for life. He was an adult in 1947 and rooted for Jackie Robinson as he made history (and later Larry Dobie as the first black man on the Cleveland Indians). As I walked into the theater to see 42, Grandpa weighed heavy on my mind. When I left the theater two hours later, he was still there and he would have been proud.
42 chronicle the decision by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to bring the first African-American to professional sports. At the time, Jim Crow and segregation were the law …. But that didn’t mean blacks weren’t playing baseball. It just meant that they were relegated to playing in their own league where players like Satchel Page were making names for themselves. Rickey chooses Jackie Robinson (newcomer Chadwick Boseman). In their first meeting, he asks Robinson, if he is strong enough to fight back by not fighting back. Throughout the film, Robinson proves that turning the other cheek took a lot more strength than giving into the quick and understandable response of fighting back.
And fight he must. He fights against teammates, fans, members of the opposing teams and his own desire to fend for himself. In his corner the entire time is his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie). Hailing from California, the missus hadn’t encountered Jim Crow segregation until she traveled with her husband. She too, had to restrain her urges to fight back (although she does walk into a Whites Only bathroom to prove a point).
42, wisely chooses to focus on the decision to make Robinson a Brooklyn Dodger and his first year on the team. The movie does lag at times, but by focusing on this targeted and critical time period, it moves along without being mired in years of a long life well-lived. I also liked the fact that writer/director Brian Hegleand chose not to go with a basic black and white portrayal (pun intended). Of course, blacks rooted for him. However, not all white people were against him. A lot of them were but not all of them. I also appreciated the fact that many of his teammates eventually came around (but it took time) and others never did (and in several instances were traded).
When I looked up Chadwick Boseman, I found that he had a number of guest roles on a variety of shows (Law & Order, Castle, Justified, Fringe, etc.) and roles in several series, Lincoln Heights and Persons Unknown. However, 42 is his first lead role. I want to see him in more. He was great. He carried his rage with restraint and dignity. Quite a performance! Hats off to Beharie as his wife. I was introduced to her in 2008 with her debut American Violet. She played a single mother facing serious prison time for trumped up drug charges. I’ve wanted to see more of her as well. Hopefully, we all will now. Finally, Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey got to act. He’s getting a little long in the tooth for all of those action roles and it is good to know that he can still act.
My least favorite sport (sorry Grandpa!), 42 even made baseball look interesting. And that’s saying something. Like any bio-pic, there is more to this story than meets the eye, but 42 is a solid effort chronicling an important moment in American History.