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42

42

 

As anybody who knows anything already knows, 42 is the answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything.  It also happens to be the number Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League baseball, wore on his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.  Coincidence? I think not.

I imagine everyone knows a little bit about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947.   His number is the only one retired by every team in baseball, and on the day “42” was released, every play in baseball wore that number on their uniform.

Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey, the president and operator of the Brooklyn Dodgers who made the bold move to bring Robinson into baseball. I’d pretty much given up on Ford as an actor; most of his roles these days are phoned in and he seems only interested in collecting the paycheck.  But he looks more lively in “42” than he has in a long time, barking and whispering and generally bringing his special kind of charm to the role.  He might be accused of overacting, but I’m glad to see him acting at all.

Chadwick Boseman, who is a newcomer to the silver screen, is terrific as Robinson.  He plays him as a man with an incredible amount of barely constrained energy.  He’s not a hothead, but he’s got the heat.  He is quick, smart, and has a ton of self-respect. You get the sense that for Robinson, baseball was an outlet for that energy, and that without it, he might’ve found himself in even deeper trouble with white racist society.  This is not a guy who’s going to sit back and accept things the way they are; he’s going to challenge injustice when he sees it, even if it kills him.

The film spends a great deal of time chronicling Robinson’s rise through baseball’s farm system, and the threats and racism he faced before he ever even donned a Dodgers uniform.  And for a while, you wonder if he’s ever going to.  But maybe this slow pace, focused on anticipation, is a deliberate choice; America in the ’50s was a society changing slowly but surely: a lot of people could see the change coming long before it arrived, and those who opposed it lived in a near-constant state of anxiety.  By keeping things focused on what’s coming instead of what’s happened, I think “42” has its finger on the pulse of the nation at that time.

It also keeps the antagonists frustratingly impersonal.  Robinson is confronted repeatedly by nameless, faceless white men; they do their racist thing and then scurry from the screen, never to return.  Even his Dodgers teammates who resent his presence in the clubhouse remain mostly anonymous; it’s only the allies that we get to know a little bit — like veteran Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who once famously offered to trade jerseys with Robinson, wearing the now-famous 42 himself, “so that people won’t be able to tell us apart.”  This is one of baseball’s most beloved anecdotes, and it makes a great scene in the movie.

The only bad guy who gets more than a scene is Alan Tudyk, who plays Phillies manager Ben Chapman.  Chapman taunts Robinson with infuriating racial slurs every time he comes to the plate, and the scenes sucked all the oxygen out of the theater.  I’ve got to say my love for Alan Tudyk just grows and grows.  He was great on “Firefly,” I loved “Tucker and Dale versus Evil,” and he was the best part of “Wreck-It Ralph.”  Keep an eye on this guy.  He may not be a star, but he is crazy talented.

If your kids are old enough to play little league baseball, they’re old enough to see this movie.  Take them to see it, and start a conversation about race and our country.  There’s not going to be a better cinematic starting place for that conversation – films about racism almost always require a pretty mature audience. (“Django Unchained,” for instance.  Don’t take your kids to see that one.)  This one will be shocking but palatable for a 10 year old.  On top of that, Robinson is a great example and hero for anybody – he is a model of restraint, a man who has every reason to strike back at his attackers, but doesn’t, because ignoring them was the only way to defeat them.  All of us need more heroes like him.

In some ways, “42” is a movie that respects baseball almost as much as it respects Jackie Robinson and his struggle against racism.  Many will complain that it’s not colorful enough, not flashy enough; that it’s competent and workmanlike but hardly anything worth getting excited about.  But baseball fans know that this is exactly what we love about the game.  Of all of America’s national pastimes, baseball is the least flashy, the most unassuming and workmanlike.  Football and basketball players both get penalized by referees for showboating; baseball players would hardly dream of it.  As Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were both quintessential baseball men, men who knew the Code and kept it, I can’t help but feel that a film like this, a film that gets the job done without showing off, that is competent but unspectacular, is exactly the kind of movie they would want made about their story.  Spike Lee has long expressed a desire to make a movie about Jackie Robinson, and when he does, I’m sure it will be more daring, more artistic, and most likely cinematically better than “42.”  But will it honor Robinson’s legacy more?  That I doubt.

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