2013-04-12

42: The Jackie Robinson Story – A Great Story in a Good Movie

by Yo Snyder

All he had to do was play baseball. It sounds simple,
really, but it was probably one of the biggest challenges anyone would face at
that time. The year was 1947, and Jackie Robinson was about step into the big
leagues as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The catch was that no one wanted
him there. They didn’t want him on the team, on the field or even playing the
game, all because his skin was a different color. However, the General Manager
of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, knew that it was time for that to change, and he
knew that Jackie Robinson was the one to bring about that change. 42 is the story of Jackie Robinson, and
it’s an eye opening look at a dark chapter in nation’s history, and the
remarkable courage and determination of two men that helped it change.

One thing I noticed about 42 was that Harrison Ford wasn’t just Harrison Ford in this movie.
He looks differently, talks differently, moves differently from the same ol’
Harrison Ford that we’re used to seeing on the big screen. To be honest, I thought
it was a bit off-putting to begin with; as though he was trying too hard.
Eventually, though, I got used to the idea of Harrison Ford being someone other
than himself, and I lost him in the role of Branch Rickey, which really helped
me enjoy the story more because I wasn’t thinking so much about it being
Harrison Ford. It’s a great role for him, and he really immerses himself in it
to the benefit of the story; I’m just not used to seeing him doing that.

As for the rest of the cast, Chadwick Boseman does a fine
job at playing Robinson, and Nicole Beharie is solid as the loving and
supportive and a bit feisty Rachel Robinson, but beyond those two characters,
the rest of the cast doesn’t have much to do. There’s a reporter who has one
forced moment with Robinson but otherwise doesn’t seem to serve much of a
purpose. I gather he was historically significant, but over the course of this
story he sort of comes and goes when needed, but really isn’t developed. The
same can be said of Rickey’s staff, or the other players on the field. They’re
all there just so the stars have someone to interact with and to help develop
their characters. And some characters disappear all together. Partway through
the ’47 season, the Dodgers need a new manager. Rickey is worried about this
because the team is facing a storm of controversy because of Robinson, and he
wants someone to guide them through it. We meet the new manager, and then don’t
see him the rest of the film. So…how did he help? What sort of stabilizing
influence did he lead? Stuff like that could have added some more depth and
layers to this story, but those opportunities were missed.

In truth, much of the film feels more like highlights from
Robinson’s life than a seamless story. We jump from scene to scene as needed,
and events develop quickly to get us to the next significant moment. This keeps
the pace brisk, but at times hampers the scope of the film. We only see
Robinson play against three teams. Even a brief montage of him playing in the
broader league and their reactions would have helped open that up. And finally,
the film ends in such a cliché “inspirational sports movie moment” that seems
so victorious, that it’s easy to think “he did it!” and cheer along with the
crowd. Of course, he didn’t do it in just one season; it was a long and arduous
road and the ’47 season was just the beginning. I don’t mind happy endings, but
some hint that all didn’t end well after that one season would have again given
the movie more depth and meaning.

Now, saying all that may make it sound like I didn’t enjoy
the movie. If anything, those things frustrated me because this could have been
a great film and instead all we get is a really good one; but it’s still quite
good. Jackie Robinson’s story and history are so compelling, it’d be hard to
make a bad movie about it. Plus, the film does an excellent job capturing the
vitriol that bubbled over because of Robinson’s presence. There are several
scenes that are extremely uncomfortable to watch, and extremely powerful
because of that fact. Indeed, those moments are so raw that I think that’s why
it was felt the film needed such a tied-up-in-a-neat-little-bow happy ending.
It softens what is otherwise a movie that will in all likelihood make you feel
pretty bad as you ponder, “How could anyone have ever treated another human
being that way?”

One of the most powerful moments in the film comes when
Robinson reaches his breaking point. He’s taken all that he can and wants to
lash out and fight back; he just wants to do
something, anything. Rickey, however,
talks him back from the ledge, reminding Robinson that the moment he fights
back, everything they’ve accomplished and hope to accomplish will be undone.
Robinson fires back, “Do you know what this is like?!” Rickey honestly applies,
“No, I don’t. Only you do, only you.” However, and I think they both knew this,
that wasn’t really true. There is One other who knew exactly what it was like.
When Jesus Christ was crucified and killed, he was done so unjustly. He was
accused of crimes he didn’t commit, beaten for statements he never made, and
killed merely because others hated and feared him. It was as unjust as any
situation could be. Yet Jesus did not fight back, he did not defend himself, he
didn’t even say a word, which amazed those in power (Matthew 27:13-14). How
could someone not respond to anything so unjust? Jesus did so because he knew
what was about to happen would change everything, and if he fought back, all of
that would be undone. The point being, Jesus knew exactly what Robinson was
going through, and more so, and I believe Robinson drew a lot strength and
inspiration from that fact. I can’t really imagine how else he could have
gotten through it all.

42: The Jackie
Robinson Story
is a powerful film with some uneven moments. However, its
core story and the glimpse it gives us at what it took to change some
injustices in our nation is eye-opening and compelling. It’s the type of film
that some might not want to see because of how uncomfortable it may make them,
but it’s one people should see. We don’t always want to remember the darker
chapters of our history, but we need to lest we repeat similar mistakes. The
legacy of Jackie Robinson still has an impact on our culture today, whether
people realize it or not. This is a chance to remember why he has such a
legacy, and why we need to never forget it. It’s a case where the importance
and power of the subject matter and its message ably overcomes any flaws in the
telling of its story.

Score: 5 of 7 – The
film is rated PG-13, and while there are some smatterings of bad words and what
not, the main concern content wise is just how raw the racism in the film is
portrayed. It can be shocking and it’s quite uncomfortable. Yet for a
generation that’s beginning to forget, that may be exactly what they need to
see.