42 is the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in American Major League Baseball, focusing on the two years of his life after he entered the game in 1947. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland. the film stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, John C. McGinley as Red Barber, T. R. Knight as Harold Parrott, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Nicole Beharie as Rachel Isum.
Because before Jackie Robinson donned a baseball jersey with the number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers—becoming the first African American player in the major leagues, he played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. That’s why the new movie about Robinson, aptly titled “42” for the number that has since been retired from all major league baseball teams in his honor. In a switch from leading man roles, Ford plays Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who recruited Robinson for both moral and business reasons. Moral being that Rickey had not done enough in the past to help another African American ball player. Picking Jackie Robinson for the job, Rickey’s reasoning is a classic: “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.” Trust me, the audience laughed up a storm.
Robinson faced hateful fans who yelled racial slurs and spat at him during games; he faced wayward pitches that struck him in the head; and he even faced death threats. Through it all, he showed restraint and courage in not fighting back. Robinson’s restraint and dignity through it all warmed his Dodgers teammates who initially opposed his joining with a petition. The story goes that Dodgers short stop Pee Wee Reese, who was also team captain, left the infield to go stand by Robinson and put his arm around him in a show of support, quieting the hecklers in Cincinnati.
The movie does cover all the bases according to Robinson’s daughter. Director-screenwriter Brian Helgeland does a stellar job of condensing key moments of two baseball seasons, 1946 and 1947, into a sometimes suspenseful and often moving piece of storytelling, and of capturing the mixed mood of the country from a time long gone. It highlights the resistance and prejudice faced by Jackie Robinson, a trailblazer. The beanballs, the deliberate spiking to injure Robinson, the protests from some of his own teammates, the catcalls and slurs from the crowd, the anonymous death threats—they’re all folded into the story without overdramatization. This story needs no embellishment. The compelling story of a legend cannot go wrong. What is so significant is that it shows people who were not from that era, myself included, how difficult it was to be someone who was never treated equally. It reminds us that racial justice and equal opportunity are only gained less a century ago. Racial equality is a hard-won battle.