Teaching duties kept me from attending press screenings for Warner Bros.’ “42,” the story of how Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Consequently, I caught the film in my nearest theater, which happened to be at the Rave Cinemas in Los Angeles’ Baldwin Hills, a multiplex that serves a predominantly black community.
So the house was crowded almost entirely with older African-Americans, who didn’t care that the movie preached more than it should or that it never was quite able to make mortal the noble figure of Jackie Robinson.
This was their story. This one had special meaning for them that transcended normal requirements of film biography.
They knew what Jackie went through because, in a sense, they all went through it. They were into every word and every scene, reacting to every pitch and racial insult hurled at the man.
Younger blacks? Nowhere to be seen. I’m not even sure if you went to the mall next door and asked that more than a handful of African-American under the age of 35 would even know who Jackie Robinson was. I hope I’m wrong.
Perhaps with the publicity “42” is receiving just ahead of April 15 — the annual day when every player in Major League Baseball wears Jackie’s uniform, number 42, to celebrate his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers — younger people may become more familiar with the legend.
Whatever the case, I won’t belabor the fact that the film’s writer-director Brian Helgeland made a more worshipful than insightful film about an American icon. Because this perhaps was the right approach.
With his widow Rachel Robinson and pioneering teammates such as Don Newcombe still alive, just getting the facts right, as this movie mostly does, and reminding people that such a man once existed may be enough.
So let it fall to a filmmaker in another generation to get to the bottom of who this remarkable man was. For that matter, this is not the first Jackie Robinson movie. Remember that Jackie himself starred in a 1950 biopic that, if memory serves, wasn’t half bad.
Chadwick Boseman does a commendable job of playing the young man who shouldered the hopes of right-minded people everywhere. It’s not easy to steal home when you’ve got a halo over your head but Boseman somehow manages.
He does sometimes act sullen, as well he should, since his character has to deal with non-stop racial abuse. The key, of course, was to not fight back. He couldn’t because that was exactly what the bigots and their allies wanted. The experiment would have ended the moment he got into his first fight.
Harrison Ford amusingly chomps on cigars and screws his face up to look like the crusty baseball executive, Branch Rickey, who took it in his head to bring a “Negro” ballplayer onto his team’s roster against the advice of everyone including his own front office.
Some will no doubt call it hammy acting. So it is but that was the real Branch Rickey.
Other standouts include Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger’s Southern-reared captain who was crucial in winning acceptance from his teammates; Christopher Meloni as Dodger manager Leo Durocher, who found himself suspended that season due to his amorous life off the field; and Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson, supportive but with a mind of her own.
The revelation to me though was Wendell Smith (played by Andre Holland). I was unaware of the pivotal role this baseball writer for the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier played in the story.
Rickey saw to it that Smith accompanied Robinson everywhere in his 1947 rookie season, preparing him for questions from white reporters, keeping his temper in check and burnishing his image when need be.
All the while, Smith sat in seats off third base with a manual typewriter on his knees since the press box itself wasn’t integrated in 1947. (Smith was inducted into the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, 22 years after his death.)
Too often, Helgeland has the characters tell each other the story in dialogue as opposed to speaking naturally. Just about every scene hits hard on the themes and issues of the movie, making the movie an illustrated guide to Robinson’s rookie season to the exclusion of anything else that may be happening in his life.
The field play, which is always a challenge for filmmakers since everyone sees the real stuff on TV daily during the season, is handled well under Helgeland and d.p. Don Burgess.
There is even a nice moment in a minor league night game where the diamond is so dark it’s a wonder anyone can see the ball. That is pretty much how things were in those old ballparks with inadequate lighting.
Mark Isham’s music like the movie itself is more intent on slamming home dramatic points than serving as a calibrated backdrop to this extraordinary story.
No one in the Rave Cinemas minded any of this.
Opens: April 12, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Production company: Legendary Pictures
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman
Director/screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Producer: Thomas Tull
Executive producers: Dick Cook, Jon Jashni
Director of photography: Don Burgess
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Music: Mark Isham
Costume designer: Caroline Harris
Editors: Kevin Stitt, Peter McNulty
PG-13 rating, 128 minutes