42 is the story of how Jackie Roosevelt Robinson went from an obscure baseball player for the Kansas City Monarchs to the most celebrated personality in all of Major League Baseball. Robinson wore the number 42 when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, hence the film’s title, and that number was retired once his career came to an end. No one will ever wear 42 on the baseball field again, except for today, April 15, when MLB annually recognizes the legacy of Jackie Robinson by having all major leaguers wear the number on their uniforms.
If you are a sports fan, or a history buff, then you already know the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play baseball in the majors. So if you see this movie, you already know the gist. A black man is denied access to the “whites only” world of professional baseball until a god-like figure materializes to open the door. This god-like figure isn’t omnipotent in the sense that he can demonstrate supernatural feats of force. His omniscience proves his divinity. And the one thing he knows better than anyone is that money isn’t black or white-it’s green.
When Branch Rickey (the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers played by Harrison Ford) defends his decision to integrate American baseball in 1946, he tells his office staff that there are a lot of black people in Brooklyn who love baseball. That translates to ticket sales. The only missing component is a black player. But not just any black player. Rickey needs a black player who can not only perform superbly on the field, but equally superb off the field in the torrent of 20th century American segregation.
Rickey and his staff do their homework. They start analyzing statistics of ballplayers in the Negro Leagues. Some players have the stats but not the temperament for the job and vice versa. Some players are too nice and likely “chum” for the sharks in the crowd who will no doubt show their disapproval of a black player with biting barbs. But after studying Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) profile, Rickey has found his man. Robinson is perfect. He attended UCLA. He’s a former U.S. Army lieutenant. He was once court-martialed because he refused to sit in the back of a bus, but he was later cleared and given an honorable discharge. His batting average is .350 (.387 in 47 games with the Monarchs according to the book Heroes of the Negro Leagues by Mark Chiarello and Jack Morelli). He’s even a Christian. In fact, he’s a Methodist like Rickey. So far so good. The only question is whether or not Robinson can stand up to the test of being jeered mercilessly by racist fans. As it turned out, Robinson would also have to withstand death threats made to himself, his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and their infant son.
In the first meeting between Rickey and Robinson, the Dodger owner initiates a role play in his office to gage his soon to be star’s temper. Only Robinson doesn’t know that Rickey is testing him. Harrison Ford summons the scoundrel as only he can do from his acting repertoire and calls Boseman’s Robinson a “black son of a bitch.” Boseman is a monument of restrained, intense furry in his response, standing at attention to face the challenge he’s just been invited to. He asks Rickey if he wants to see if he’s got the guts to fight back. Rickey tells him no. Instead he wants to know if he’s got the guts not to fight back. The guts not to fight back like their savior Jesus Christ, and instead turn the other cheek. Later Rickey will be telling him to “run bases like the devil” on the playing field (Robinson had a penchant for stealing bases and stole home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series). But for now, he needs to be reassured that Robinson won’t “mess up all of his plans” to present the first black ballplayer in the big leagues as a decent, amicable guy that won’t sour white America by brawling with the first person who calls him a nigger.
Rickey assigns Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier as Robinson’s guide. He acts as Robinson’s mentor, prepping him on how he should give interviews to the press and respond to hecklers. Robinson is dismissive of Smith when the sportswriter asks him how it feels to be trying out for the Montreal Royals (the Brooklyn farm team) en route to becoming a Dodger. Robinson largely ignores Smith’s question, until the same question is asked of him by a throng of white reporters, to whom he gives the reply that Smith coached him to deliver. The irony is palpable-a black ballplayer considered insignificant by white ballplayers writing off a black sportswriter.
Robinson gets his first opportunity to not “mess up” Rickey’s plans in a series against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947. As Robinson steps up to the plate to bat, Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) pesters him with a vicious string of obscenities. He ridicules Robinson in a good ole boy twang, calling him “nigger, nigger, nigger.” His verbal onslaught is unbearable. It is unceasing. Tudyk’s repetitive pronunciation of the epithet, and the adjoining chuckle at Robinson’s displeasure was more than enough to unnerve all of the theatergoers in attendance. It set the stage for the most powerful scene in the movie, (Oscar worthy in my opinion) when Boseman articulates Robinson’s anguish by exploding in the tunnel he walks off into after failing to get on base. Boseman destroys a bat by swinging it into the walls, fueled by a deafening roar he lets loose from the pit of his soul. His scream stops time. It divides Robinson’s existence into two halves. Before it, he was a black ballplayer in the company of other black ballplayers on the field, collectively struggling against a racist society. After it, he was the only black ballplayer on the field, expected to war against it all alone. This wasn’t his first game in the majors. But it was the first game in which that tension of being the only black ballplayer on the field overcame him.
He collapses onto the floor, surrounded by splintered fragments of his bat. He is in tears. This giant of a man is sobbing, almost to the point of being inconsolable. Rickey finds his way into the tunnel to see Robinson destroyed. He tells Robinson that he must go back out on the field because he is “medicine.” By going back out on the field, he is going to heal the wounds that racism has inflicted on the consciousness of everyone watching. He is America’s panacea. And by some miracle, Robinson gets up and makes his way out of the tunnel and back onto the field.
The baseball action in 42 was riveting- enough to engage the crowd seated in the showing I sat in to clap and cheer in approval whenever Robinson stole a base or scored a run in the movie. They clapped just as enthusiastically at the epilogue, some of whom were maybe only 9 or 10 years old. The fact that those of the younger generation were moved to such a degree is the true testament of 42’s effectiveness. If the film can emotionally connect with children whose parents weren’t even alive when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, then its message is enduring. That, along with a sensational 1940’s era set and costume design (love those throwback jerseys), makes 42 a home run.