By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette — Think about it. In the late 1940s, black men did not play professional baseball with white men.
Blacks had fought in segregated units in World War II, returning home to segregated lives, an especially harsh existence in the southern United States. In many areas of the country, schools, public transportation, restaurants, theaters, and drinking fountains were off limits. The Civil Rights movement was still in its infancy.
And racial segregation in public schools was the standard across America. This wouldn’t change until the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on May 17, 1954 in “Brown versus Board Of Education (Topeka, Kansas)” that led to the desegregation of public schooling.
Into this living history, the lives of two men would cross to alter events. Branch Rickey was the general manager of the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson was a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, earning $400 a month playing his beloved game of baseball.
As told in the new movie “42,” Rickey and Robinson united to break baseball’s color line. When he took the field in Brooklyn on April 15, 1947, Robinson was the first black man to play in the major leagues in the modern era. There was a time in the 1880s, when blacks and whites did play together, but that ended, and for six decades, baseball was an all-white world. Robinson played first base for the Dodgers that April day and the sport was changed forever. 42 was the uniform number Robinson wore.
Director-screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s film focuses on the relationship between Rickey and Robinson. The determined Rickey believed in his heart that baseball was ready for a black player, saying that it was the right thing to do. Robinson was frustrated in Kansas City and bridled at the athletic segregation he believed prevented him from showing how good he was at the game. The coming together of the men seemed to be destiny.
“42” concentrates on three years, 1945 through 1947. The film offers few surprises, not that it has to, but it doesn’t rise to the level of greatness. It’s an earnest effort detailing how Robinson got from Kansas City to Brooklyn. He was not received warmly. Robinson was subjected to racial epithets of the most abusive and ignominious kind. Not just from fans, but also from his fellow players, including teammates.
I wish the movie had stressed Robinson’s extraordinary talent as a player more than the virulent treatment he received. The message is delivered and received. It was ugly. But the whole point of Robinson’s journey was that he was an exceptional baseball player. His performance on the field, his stunning game statistics, which true fans study devotedly, should be part of the drama we see before us. It may have taken the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson’s shoulders in front of the howling idiots in the stands to send a strong signal that the new first baseman was welcomed, but his stellar hitting and fielding also silenced the mobs.
Although the uncomplicated film delivers a small peek at Robinson’s private life through his marriage to his adoring wife Rachel, we are not given a better sense of the stresses they faced. There’s also too little of how Robinson got to be the great baseball player he was. His mother had moved her family from Georgia to Pasadena, Calif. In college, Jackie was a star in baseball, football, basketball, and track, becoming the first athlete in UCLA history to earn varsity letters in four sports.
Robinson’s older brother Mack was a track superstar at the University of Oregon. He won the silver medal in the men’s 200 meter race at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, finishing just 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens. Mack lived out his adult life sweeping streets in Pasadena. The story of the entire Robinson family could have been a goldmine for a filmmaker. Hollywood has celebrated Jackie. He played himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a popular studio release in 1950.
What we end up with in “42” is a sports history lesson not unlike those short films you see in museums. The feature exists because Robinson existed, but overall it falls short. The writing is by-the-numbers, the directing dispassionate. There are good production values, and the praiseworthy acting by all enhances our experience, especially Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, Harrison Ford as Rickey, Nicole Behaire as Rachel, Lucas Black as Reese, Christopher Meloni as wise-cracking coach Leo Durocher, and John C. McGinley as the legendary baseball announcer Red Barber.
“42” doesn’t reach the mythic level of “The Natural” or “Field Of Dreams.” Watching it is like going to a shrine. Interesting and reverential, but a little too quiet.Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.