I recommend “42,” which proves to be an entertaining retelling of the story of the integration of baseball in 1947, even though it indulges in many Hollywood clichés. With strong performances from its two leads, Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford (in his best performance in years) as Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, the film introduces another generation of Americans to an important story in the country’s journey to civil rights. The movie focuses on Robinson’s life from his initial signing by Rickey in 1945 to the conclusion of his first season with the Dodgers in 1947.
Like many historical films, “42” only provides limited context to what precedes the events it depicts. The introduction to the film references the impact of World War II on race relations, as many black veterans returned home with higher expectations after fighting for democracy in a war against racist regimes abroad. The agitation of the American Communist Party, as well as the pressure from new state laws barring employment discrimination, like the Ives-Quinn bill in New York, in pressuring major league baseball to integrate, goes unmentioned. Wendell Smith, a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important black newspapers in the country, has a major part in the film, but his role and that of other black sportswriters in pushing major league baseball to eliminate the color barrier is also neglected. The film gives Rickey full credit for integrating baseball and while Rickey’s role was truly historical and heroic, “42” doesn’t provide a full picture of the story behind Robinson’s emergence.
Staring with Robinson’s first spring training in Florida, the movie focuses on the ferocious resistance to integration in America in the 1940s. As would be the case until the 1960s, black players could not stay in the same hotels with their white counterparts due to the Sunshine State’s Jim Crow laws. Indeed, Robinson broke the color line in baseball nearly a decade before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), the events usually regarded as the start of the modern civil rights movement.
After a year in the minors in Montreal, Robinson made the Dodgers squad in 1947, but many of his teammates were not happy about it. As the film accurately depicts, several of them signed a petition declaring their unwillingness to play with Jackie. Manager Leo Durocher (played well by “Law and Order: SVU’s” Christopher Meloni) orders a team meeting to tell the team that Robinson will play if he can help the team.
Once Robinson debuts in 1947, the film does a relatively accurate retelling of his first season. From skimming Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day (2007), it appears the screenwriter relied heavily on that book. Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman, a native Alabamian, is the stock villain of the movie, as he repeatedly taunts Robinson with racial slurs during his plate appearances.
The movie includes the famous story of Robinson’s appearance in Cincinnati where, as legend has it, the crowd, which likely included many people from nearby Kentucky, heckled him with racist epithets. While this occurs, Dodger shortstop and team leader Pee Wee Reese, a Kentuckian himself, comes over to Robinson and put his arm around him to demonstrate his support for his teammate. While this symbol of interracial brotherhood is now memorialized with a statue in Brooklyn, there is little contemporary record of the incident and it likely did not occur (Eig, 127-129).
In true Hollywood style, Robinson’s heroism and performance wins over his teammates. Though there is little doubt that many players embraced him more as the season progressed, they rarely socialized with him during that inaugural season. The movie concludes with Robinson, like Roy Hobbs in “The Natural,” (1984) hitting a home run to clinch the pennant. Conspicuously omitted from the feel-good story is the Dodgers’ loss to the Yankees in the World Series that fall.
The movie’s conclusion notes that two other African American players, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, joined Brooklyn in the next two years. Still, the process of integration in major league was slower than the film suggests. It would not be until 1959 that the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate.
These criticisms aside, “42” is a fun movie that portrays an important part of American history. Like many other historical movies, it makes its audience familiar with a story it would likely be unaware of otherwise.
Sources: Jonathan Eig, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (New York, 2007)