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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

42

Major League Player

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When Jackie Robinson crossed the color line at Ebbets Field in 1947, many Americans weren’t ready to see a black man play ball in the same league as white men. Seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against legal segregation, and eight before Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus, Robinson was given an opportunity by the Brooklyn Dodgers to enlarge America’s understanding of civil rights through participating as an equal in America’s pastime. Many baseball fans howled and cursed from the stands, and players and coaches shouted vicious epithets, but Robinson prevailed with dignity. And he played the game very well.

Robinson has been the subject of stage plays and documentaries. He even played himself in a Hollywood movie, The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). The newest dramatization of his life, 42, features Chadwick Boseman, in his big screen starring debut, as the athlete who endured more pressure than any player in the history of professional sports. Like the public face of the man he portrays, Boseman gives a carefully modulated response to his role, revealing little of the inner life while maintaining an iconic face of fierce dignity. In reality and in the movie, Robinson had to endure many things on his way from the segregated Negro League to Ebbets Field. He was drummed out of the army for refusing to sit at the back of a bus. At a Kansas filling station, he was denied use of a toilet. He was always a fighter, but in the Dodgers, fighting wasn’t allowed.

In the role of Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford keeps most of the scene chewing (or “chin wagging,” in the sportscasting parlance of the day) to himself. In Ford’s hands, Rickey is a deep-died curmudgeon with a tarnished golden heart, his mouth formed for scalding putdowns or clamping on fat cigars. At first, Rickey seems less an idealist than a man who wants to shake up pro ball from sheer cussedness—and the profit motive. “Dollars aren’t black or white—they’re green,” he growls. “New York is full of Negro baseball fans.”

As the story progresses, we hear a flinty determination to hold true to Christianity’s implication of universal dignity. Rickey uses Jesus as the example for Robinson to follow: “Turn the other cheek,” he tells the player. And it’s good advice. One smart answer to a single redneck, and one punch thrown to a taunting racist, and it’s a strike out. Long before the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr., Robinson was the most prominent African American confronting a culture of hatred.

42 is a smoothly orchestrated Hollywood biography, trimming and shaping a challenging life into an inspiring picture. In other words, bad as some of the cinematic situations are, the reality was ten times tougher. And yet, 42 conveys the most important truth of Robinson’s story: Sometimes, a few good people can change the world for the better.