Film Review: Robinson biopic offers winning entertainment

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language

Early scenes in 42 depict Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) telling his staff why he plans to sign a black player to the team—in effect bringing an end to racial segregation in baseball and helping set the stage for the American civil rights movement.

First, it makes good business sense to enlist talent from the Negro leagues and draw African American fans to Dodgers games. Second and more important, Rickey is taking a moral stand. “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field,” he famously said, “but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”

In ’42’, newcomer Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie Robinson opposite Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1943 to 1950. PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES

The script also puts a few new words in Rickey’s mouth, about why he wants Jackie Robinson for the job. Learning the 27-year-old star athlete risked a military court martial by refusing to sit in the back of a bus, Rickey says, “If he were white, we’d call that spirit. Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist! We can’t go wrong.”

That’s the only mention in the movie of the Methodist heritage the two men shared. But Christian faith is expressed often in Rickey’s dialogue, and implied in the courage of Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) as they face the challenges ahead.

Robinson first serves a year as second baseman for the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. Trouble comes the moment he starts spring training in Florida: Not allowed to room at a hotel with his white teammates, he must find other lodgings, and the Royals are forced to cancel a Southern exhibition tour. But Robinson’s performance proves he’s ready for the majors, and on April 15, 1947 he makes his debut with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s film celebrates that day, but also explores tension both in the clubhouse (a group of players files an unsuccessful petition to have Robinson removed from the team) and on the field. In the most brutal scene, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) taunts Robinson from the dugout during a game with racial epithets, and tells his pitchers to throw balls at Robinson’s head when he’s at bat.

Those attacks backfire, though, and in the end help to unify the Dodgers. When Robinson is heckled during a pre-game practice session in Cincinnati, shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) puts an arm around his shoulder in a public sign of support that silences the crowd. (The moment is also a landmark in U.S. sports history.)

42 is named after Robinson’s uniform number—which in 1997 was retired permanently in his honor. And of course, the movie is a tribute in itself, a crowd pleaser that overcomes a few moments of dramatic excess with sincere performances from all concerned.

It isn’t the first Robinson biography for the big screen; in 1950 Robinson himself re-enacted his story in a Hollywood feature, available on DVD. This one, though, is history made fresh for a new generation, and shouldn’t be missed.

Bill Fentum, Former UMR Associate Editor

Bill Fentum

Bill Fentum was a dedicated employee of The United Methodist Reporter from 1985 to 2013, serving as the associate editor. Bill continues his work in journalism in a variety of positions as an independent journalist.

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