Niagara Gazette — So just how equal were opportunities in Jackie Robinson’s America?
Three years after 42’s debut with the Dodgers, Hollywood moved to make a movie of his life, so far. Not one black actor was considered appropriate for the role! Robinson played himself, and quite well, with Ruby Dee as Rachel. Coming in at a little more than an hour (not uncommon for the time), it was well-received then and has stood the test of the decades.
Now, two-thirds of a century after announcer Red Barber had to drink himself into the notion of socializing with a darker-hued fellow citizen, “42” catches up with Jackie Robinson. The lead role is played by an actor who is barely an asteroid in the vast firmament of stars of color. It opened over the weekend to enormous anticipation, the only game in town on the saturated Niagara Frontier. At a mall cinema in rural Genesee County, more than 100 people joined us – ethnically, they could have been a major-league baseball roster from 1945.
To coin baseball phraseology, “42” plays within itself. It charts the immediate before and after of Robinson’s rookie year. Chadwick Boseman, slightly shy of Robinson’s remarkable musculature, brings a riveting blend of dignity and frustration. Harrison Ford invests Branch Rickey, Robinson’s singular champion, with a whole Millenium Falconful of piety, practicality and sometimes friendly persuasion. Many in Genesee County took a rain delay to dab at their eyes before filing out.
Director Brian Helgeland actually downplayed the virulent reaction to Robinson. The privations he and his newlywed Rachel’s endured trekking to spring training went far beyond their ouster from their flight in New Orleans, “to lighten the plane with a storm brewing,” while white travelers, evidently with lighter bones, were seated in their place.
The film puts up a lot of big innings – Dixie-born shortstop “Pee Wee” Reese expressing an epiphany in Rickey’s office, Eddie Stanky squaring off with the Phillies’ caveman of a manger, Rickey persuading mild-mannered Burt Shotton to shun retirement and take over the club after Leo Durocher is suspended for, well, conduct out of uniform.
“You Robinson?” Shotton asks, quite possibly “42’s” Most Valuable Phraser.
Take it from one who lived then and there, “42” looks terrific – the rag-doll gloves, the punctuated box scores, the shabby stands, the look of Ebbets Field, re-created by computer, one hears.
The movie does not play errorless ball. Nobody said “redneck” then, or “A.S.A.P.,” either, and the Dodgers sure never batted in the top of the 11th at home, and Rickey never swore, though he did nearly beat “Judas Priest!” into the ground.
But score a hit to Director Helgeland for the purity of his script, no manufactured crises. When Robinson first scores there’s no close play at the plate, and the Dodgers win the pennant by double figures. It’s not as mean as it could be but it’s never wrong, unlike the fan in Sanford, FL (of all places) telling Robinson “The Brooklyn Dodgers ain’t changin’ our way of life.”
How’s that workin’ out for you?Doug Smith offers his takes on local baseball with 'Base Paths' every Monday