New film lacks realism in portrayal of Robinson
In the Major League Baseball world, today marks Jackie Robinson Day, the day when baseball personnel and fans alike honor the memory of a MLB legend by wearing the number “42.”
And just in time for Jackie Robinson Day comes “42,” a biopic about Robinson’s rise to becoming the first black baseball player in major league history.
However, “42” may not be what some people expect. How should I put this? The movie tells the “Jackie Robinson story” without telling Jackie Robinson’s story. This film documents a point in history where a desire for change in sports dealt a blow to traditional prejudices. But with the slate script and conventional approach, this feels more like sitting through a high school history lecture.
There’s also the matter of how the film presents the baseball legend, portraying a noble athlete instead of the realistic, true-to-life character. This is a mythologizing biography, the “Remember the Titans” of baseball films that should be shown in schools as a motivational tool for students.
The film begins by introducing Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and his first campaign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. While not exactly capturing Robinson’s personality, “42” effectively realizes the racially-motivated wall that greeted him upon his entrance into what was decidedly a “white man’s game.” Once Dodger’s executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells Robinson “I want a player who’s got the guts NOT to fight back,” we immediately understand what challenges he was up against as a black athlete in 1947.
If people were offended by the indulgent use of the N-word in “Django Unchained,” they may also find this film offensive. There’s a scene where the redneck manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), hurls a never-ending stream of N-word-laced criticisms every time Robinson bats. This verbal tirade recounts the centerpiece of “42.” Chapman’s assaults lead to unintended consequences; they not only hasten Robinson’s acceptance by his teammates but they tide the course among moderate ball fans.
Some might argue that director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland does too much. His screenplay breaks the movie down into three separate stories: Robinson’s family life, his struggles with racism and the way he influenced society. Die-hard baseball fans can still get a kick out of seeing baseball legends on the big screen; Dodgers player Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) to a young Ed Charles all make appearances on Robinson’s path to baseball fame.
The biggest problem in “42” is that it never really delves deep into the character or background of Robinson. Helgeland presents Robinson the icon, not Robinson the person. He piles on the inanities of presenting an inspiring story of a gallant saint, when he could have given us a glimpse of a passionate man. Depicting Robinson as a flawless baseball player, we are only privy to one scene when all the racism finally exposes his anger. Instead of a biography, it feels like we’re watching the makings of a myth.
The same goes for the scenes depicting Robinson’s home life with his wife Rachael (Nicole Beharie), again painted as the picture of perfection. The real Rachael Robinson herself was also a hero, but “42’s” Rachael is portrayed as the quintessential “stand by her man” woman, counseling Robinson and quietly dealing with her own racial demons.
Of course, all this could be a matter of looking at the “Mona Lisa” and judging the frame, since Robinson’s achievement in baseball is impossible to overstate. He didn’t just integrate America’s greatest pastime; he took huge strides for equality in all sports. It’s difficult to present that kind of achievement and passion without overdramatizing.
The most compelling scenes happen on the baseball field. It’s there that Robinson shows off the dynamic athleticism that made him Rickey’s choice. In one sequence, Robinson reaches first, steals second and third, and then makes it home on a single. It’s almost more dramatic than watching him hit a home run, as Robinson stares down the overtly bigoted pitcher looking to tag him out.
Boseman gives an earnest performance as the baseball legend, even though he’s straitjacketed into a role with scant room to act anything but the martyr. He looks like an athlete on the field, and presents a fire-and-restraint look in his eyes during the many scenes of enduring discrimination.
Ford basically chomps the scenery in a cartoonish, ham-fisted performance as Rickey — though it’s not entirely his fault. Nobody can sound convincing when given lines like “Dollars aren’t black and white – they’re green.” His physical resemblance to Rickey is impressive, and he portrays him positively without making him look like he single-handedly revolutionized baseball.
Whatever the flaws, “42” is a well-photographed, deeply respectful biopic that evokes powerful emotions. This movie isn’t exactly Hall of Fame worthy, but it does give an adequate depiction of one of the most defining and trying times in baseball history.