I have a soft-spot for baseball movies. The crack of the bat, the sound of the ball hitting leather, green grass and legendary summer afternoons—there’s something nostalgic and really beautiful about a good baseball movie. 42, the new film about Jackie Robinson, combines a love of baseball with a sharp historical narrative to produce a great sports movie.
42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s movement from the Negro leagues to his rookie season on the Brooklyn Dodgers. The film opens on Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) telling his staff that he plans to bring an African American player to the Dodgers, claiming that money isn’t black and white—every dollar is green. The office combs over scouting reports for hundreds of ball players looking for the right combination of talent and character, hoping to find a player who is rebellious enough to be the first black player in an all-white baseball league but also thick-skinned enough not to get beaten down by systemic racism. They find that man in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). When Robinson heads to spring training with his new wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), they are greeted by journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who will help connect them to the African American community whose hospitality will help them navigate a still deeply segregated league and local community. The film follows Robinson’s season with the Dodger’s International League team, the Montreal Royals, and his transition to the Dodgers in 1947, chronicling the resistance he met by both baseball fans and teammates.
The film does a wonderful job of portraying a mixture of racism, changing attitudes, and baseball as a business and a beloved pastime. While the audience is never fully able to escape the tension of witnessing racism, these moments are balanced by joyous portrayals of Robinson on the field. His playful skill for stealing bases becomes emblematic of him overcoming his own anger to win games. At the same time, he isn’t portrayed as an uncomplicated, long-suffering hero. It’s pretty clear that it pains Robinson not to fight back against players and managers who taunt him, but Rickey, Rachel, and his supportive teammates help him to shoulder the burden as he “lives the sermon.” The film also resists portraying racism without nuance. Instead, there are many players who have a sort of cognitive dissonance, learning to respect Robinson as a man and a ballplayer while struggling to let go of generations-old attitudes. For example, at one game Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) stops during warm-ups to put his arm around Robinson, expressing his support for him and his desire for the public to know what he stands for in one breath, and insisting that the South could have won the Civil War if only…in another. The film also adeptly portrays the way the rest of the Dodgers were confronted with their white privilege when traveling with Robinson. When they’re turned away from their hotel in Philadelphia, Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) demands Robinson apologize to the team and Robinson retorts, “You’re really asking me to apologize for places like this?” In another scene Reese visits Mr. Rickey with hate mail he received for playing with Robinson and instead of sympathy, he is shown the fat folders full of death threats Robinson has received. Though 42 features the obligatory scenes of inspiring ballgames with swelling music, it’s the complicated portrayal of racism that makes the film moving.
The strong screenplay is brought to life by excellent performances. Chadwick Boseman skillfully plays the restraint with which Robinson had to respond to opponents and also the personal charm he had on the ballfield.
Though Boseman and Nicole Beharie didn’t always have the best chemistry, her portrayal of Rachel Robinson makes her a strong counterpart. The ensemble of actors portraying other players did a wonderful job of capturing the mixed and changing emotions many people felt. Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey largely drives the action of the movie and he mostly does a great job capturing the frank businessman, but at times he overacted in a way that distracted from emotional scenes. Nonetheless, the awkward hug he gave an enraged Chadwick Boseman was a favorite moment for me.
For its nuanced approach to racism, motivation, and historical context as well as its technical beauty and mostly good performances, I rate 42 4.5/5 stars.
42 was written and directed by Brian Helgeland. It runs 128 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language.