Solid and heartfelt, “42” is less the story of baseball icon Jackie Robinson and more the story of how those around him reacted to the Brooklyn Dodgers star.
In 1947, Robinson became the first African-American player since 1884 to play in a major league game. Played by Chadwick Boseman (“The Kill Hole”) with just the right intensity and restraint, the role of Robinson is at the forefront of a nation torn asunder by segregation and prejudice. This is not really a character study so much as a chronicle of baseball and U.S. history.
Mostly, this follows Robinson through two years of his life, from 1945 through '47. We see him in the minor leagues and, finally, as a player with an opportunity to make the Dodgers roster.
The Dodgers’ general manager is Branch Rickey (an almost-unrecognizable Harrison Ford), who realizes that having a black player on his team will create a lot of controversy. Rickey also recognizes that Robinson can be a hothead at times.
“ You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?” Robinson asks him.
“No, I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back,” Rickey answers.
“You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I'll give you the guts,” Robinson tells him.
Robinson tastes racism before arriving in the big leagues, but there it’s relentless, coming seemingly from every direction: some members of his own team, many people in the crowds and players on other teams.
Alan Tudyk (“Serenity”) plays Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Chapman simply screams racial epithets at Robinson, who does everything he can to keep his cool. Robinson’s reaction in private after this verbal assault is one of the most compelling moments in the movie.
As time goes on, Robinson’s presence becomes polarizing not only on the field, but also in American society. The threat of violence hangs over him and his family, and Rickey is there to protect him as best he can.
Part of the show’s appeal is its depiction of the look of the postwar era, from the wonderful clothing to its cars and the appearance of the stadiums and fans. The visuals are accompanied by a marvelous soundtrack that runs the gamut from Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” to “Lover Man” by Billie Holliday.
This is an enjoyable movie that tells more than the story of one player. It tells part of the story of this country, too.