This stirring biopic on baseball’s first black player has lots of terrific qualities, but it still left me wishing it had broadened its scope. 42 could have covered more ground and is hindered by a limited timeline between the events of 1945-47. Chadwick Boseman proves suitable as Jackie Robinson, a convincing ballplayer and a proud African-American. The cantankerous Harrison Ford eats into his role with gusto as Branch Rickey, the team owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. What pulls us into the story is the rampant animosity of a black player moving into a white man’s game, forcing the black man to excel in a hostile environment.
1946 covers the Montreal Royals minor league season, portraying how fan bigotry transformed into fan loyalty. Robinson was getting paid $600 per week, though, not bad. When we get to 1947, Robinson has jubilantly signed a Major League Baseball contract without hesitance (it would have been sweet to hear about the pay-raise). He is married to his beloved Rachel (Nicole Beharie, who brings pathos to a thinly written role), although, we’re not quite sure how they met. But the money is green, as they say, which transports them into a better living community – white neighbors either shoot N-word slurs or they’re surprisingly supportive.
Robinson can hit home runs. He can steal bases. We see enough of that. One of the compelling, and abominable moments, is when the Dodgers play against racist-heavy Philadelphia Phillies. Manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk, effective even though he’s never played a mean guy before) hectors Robinson in the foulest, despicable way – we hear every racist epitaph available. But Robinson’s own team isn’t rosy either, and there is a petition signing to get the black man booted off. Half a season later, after he’s shaken off the racism, Robinson is the premiere star player and embraced by almost all in the dugout.
That’s 1947 for you. I wish the movie would have depicted more of Robinson’s playing years, or even thrown some documentary footage into the end credits. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (writer-director of “Payback,” writer of “L.A. Confidential”), he has certainly captured the look and feel of the 1940’s racial divide with potency, but he’s made half-drawn parcel of a movie, too.
There is no denying the Boseman/Ford chemistry. Ford, cigar-chomping in this role, has turned in his whip and pistol to become this rousing speech-making advocate of race integration in sports. There’s not a scene I didn’t like with him. Boseman is an embodiment of dignity trouncing heartache. For a black man at that time, he had to be twice as good as everybody else. There is satisfying inspirational content here.
128 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
SPORTS DRAMA / BIO PICS / WEEKEND MATINEE
Film Cousins: “The Natural” (1984); “Pastime” (1991); “Malcolm X” (1992); “Moneyball” (2011).