Jackie Robinson and Hollywood make history again
We are fortunate to have been spared Spike Lee’s take on the Jackie Robinson story, which surely would have been spiteful; emphatic about race grievance and loaded with other Spikey tangents. But Brian Helgeland has made a superb tale about Robinson’s groundbreaking desegregation of baseball through the machinations of Branch Rickey–and about American spiritual history and destiny. The issues and emotions have a beautiful clarity.
42, titled after Robinson’s player number (retired for all teams by the Major League Baseball association yet worn by players every April 15th–Jackie Robinson Day), commemorates Robinson breaking the game’s color bar in 1947 as the first Negro playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Helgeland depicts this world-changing risk as a cultural story–not simply one man’s life story. Instead of biographical depth, 42 sustains the same benevolence as the MLB’s memorial; its lively and vivid narrative goes through the arduous steps of a social and moral revolution.
More than a baseball movie, 42 is a folktale touching on the spirituality evidenced in Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Dodgers’ General Manager Rickey (played by Harrison Ford). Seeing baseball as the medium of social change; its practice and rituals are understood as basic to America’s sense of capability despite prevailing social divisions. That explains Helgeland’s elastic sense of class. Robinson steps into the roughneck world of sport possessing higher personal principles. He and wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) are already upwardly mobile; they need only the income and recognition that white Americans take for granted.
Now let’s get rid of the narrow-minded complaint about Hollywood race stories always unequally pairing history’s black sacrificial figures with white cohorts. Helgeland’s even-handed vision of the Rickey-Robinson revolution enlarges it, taking in different aspects of America’s racial reality. Not merely the Jackie Robinson story, 42 relates tandem efforts and transformations by Rickey, Negro sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), assorted teammates (many brief, perfectly etched characterizations from Max Gail’s captivated retired manager, Chris Meloni’s virile Leo Durocher to Lucas Black’s affable Pee Wee Reese) and the crowds who fill the stands. All profiles in courage.
The back office functioning behind America’s public face rarely gets shown but 42’s story fortunately reveals that it appropriate significance and appeal, primarily through Harrison Ford. Projecting established magnanimous decency, Ford puts Rickey’s risk-taking and persistent urging in perfect balance to newcomer Boseman who portrays Robinson’s circumspect heroism. This isn’t a timed, harmless Black man; he’s self-assured yet resentful of those who want to make him humble. (Jeffrey Wright has played this Poitier complex but Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington never has). Boseman’s wary intelligence conveys deep pride, a forgotten aspect of black America’s gradual civil rights evolution. 42 revives it.
The way Helgeland balances Ford/Rickey’s courage represents the modern audience’s guileless ignorance of history and the period era’s attitudes. The young black actors–all ebullient, optimistic, determined–represent Blacks’ hopes while the familiar Whites personify fears. When 42 explicates these details, it surpasses Steven Spielberg’s morally compromised Lincoln.
Cinematographer Don Burgess makes 42 the most beautiful movie of 2013 so far. He photographs sunlight and water (when Robinson finally showers with his white teammates) with radiance. Nothing in Lincoln’s political contrivance is as resonant as Rickey confessing “Something was wrong at the heart of the game I loved and I had ignored it.” Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln never admitted such sorrowful complex. Lincoln pretended that political opposition was the essence of America’s moral progress when in fact it was only a power struggle; 42 is deeper and more honest in its display of how Americans changed through accepting skill, humanity, sympathy.
This is a better approach to history than George Lucas’ lame Tuskegee Airman tribute Red Tails. Helgeland has made a film totally without cynicism. Cynicism is what ruined Lincoln; cynicism was at the core of Kushner and Spielberg’s self-congratulatory arrogance–which was why liberals overrated it. Will Obama-era audiences appreciate 42’s richness with its deep understanding of how hard-won compassion has greater everyday effectiveness than the rule of law? The splendor of ball field effort? Or a silhouetted fatherly embrace? These images test fairness within the glory of nature without the falsity of The Natural or Field of Dreams like no movie since Robert Aldrich’s The Big Leaguer.
I’d like to describe more of 42’s wonderful scenes such as the shots of Robinson rounding the bases, focused on his “42” uniform imprint like an existential Bressonian icon, but viewers should discover such beauty for themselves. Rickey and Robinson unite over the idea of being “built to last” by doing the right thing. Whether or not 42 conquers the box-office, it is built to last.
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