If there’s one random thing you probably don’t know about me (or care to know, honestly) it’s that I don’t generally enjoy sports movies very much. Maybe “don’t generally enjoy” is a bit of strong statement, but at the same time, you’ve got to understand that for me, sports is my life. It’s what I do and who I am. And because of it, it means I’m quite picky in what kind of sports content I consume. In a lot of ways, you could call me a sports snob in that way.
So when a sports movie does come out, inevitably I always go through the same routine in my head. I wonder aloud if checking out the movie will actually be worth my time. If I’ll actually learn or take anything away from it. Or if ultimately I’ll just end up angered by it; because I mean seriously, is there anything more annoying than some Hollywood director taking a great story, and twisting facts strictly for entertainment purposes? Not much, as far as I’m concerned.
And it was largely that attitude that made me hesitant to go see the new Jackie Robinson biopic ‘42’ when I was offered the chance to check out a pre-screening last week. After all, what could some movie about Jackie Robinson teach me which I didn’t already know? And even worse, how insulting would it be, if some director distorted Robinson’s story, one which is not only an important one in sports history, but American history as well?
In the end I did go see the movie, and thankfully my greatest fears were never realized; if anything ‘42’ was the exact opposite. The movie was not only much more raw and real than I ever expected, but frankly, I couldn’t imagine a much better movie on the subject of Jackie Robinson being made.
Before we get into the details (which at times are gory), we need to first to get to the emotion that this movie inflicts, because again, it’s that emotion which stands out above everything else. In a session with the media last week acting legend Harrison Ford (who plays famed Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey) described the “visceral effect” the movie has on the viewer, the idea that truly understand what Jackie Robinson experienced, you can’t just read it in a book, but instead need to see it with your eyes.
And to be blunt, Ford (who I learned is an unbelievably smart man) was absolutely correct: ‘42’ isn’t so much about learning about Robinson’s story, but instead, experiencing that story with your own two eyes as a second-hand witness.
As a matter of fact, if there is one takeaway above all that I had from this movie, it was the rawness of it all. Director Brian Hegeland doesn’t ease you into the story, and if you’re planning on bringing a young child or politically correct boyfriend or girlfriend to the theater this weekend, well, you might want to think again. Understand that ’42,’ pulls no punches; the “N-word” is used prominently, the language is blunt and the scenes of verbal prejudice and physical violence brought upon Robinson at times, overwhelming. It’s cliché to say that this movie “gives you a whole new perspective on what Robinson experience.” Only it kind of does.
But beyond the stuff we already knew- and let’s be honest, the prejudice is something that is no secret to anyone who knows anything about Robinson’s story- maybe the coolest part to me is that this movie actually did teach me new stuff about Robinson. If you decide to check it out this weekend, I suspect it will teach you something too.
For starters, the way that Helegand presents the dynamic between Jackie and his wife Rachel is simply fascinating. History taught us long ago about the trials and tribulations that Jackie Robinson went through in breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, but it often overlooks the fact that his wife was right there alongside him battling the same struggles. It’s easy to forget that Rachel Robinson also grew up in the relatively harmonious community of Pasadena, Calif., and that the racism that Jackie experienced for the first time in the Jim Crow South was something Rachel dealt with as well.
It’s also what makes the “story” behind their relationship so fascinating; in speaking with both Helegand and Chad Boseman (the actor who played Robinson last week) they were both quick to point out the dynamic between the Robinson’s and that they were as much “partners” in the struggle, as they were simply husband and wife (for what it’s worth, Rachel- who is still alive and living in Connectict- did consult extensively on the movie).
Another person that history has long forgotten- and a fact that I learned from the movie- is that in addition to Rachel, there was another person fighting Jackie’s struggle along with him. That person was a man named Wendell Smith, a real-life journalist baseball journalist of the era, who was also hired by the Dodgers to help a young Robinson meander through his first few years of pro ball.
When you see the movie you’ll understand the unique dynamic between the two, but understand that Smith was very real, and wore many different hats, as that of Robinson’s confidant, chauffeur, friend and ally. While Robinson was there to play ball, Smith not only had a full-time newspaper job, but also was left with the responsibilities that come with transporting a black baseball player through the segregated South. In one especially emotional scene, he’s also the one who’s got to drive Robinson out of town, one step ahead of a white posse that is coming to get him.
Really though what was so fascinating about Smith is that in a lot of ways, he was fighting the same struggle as Robinson, and frankly was just as significant a historical figure as the ball-player too. Like Robinson, Smith wasn’t allowed simple perks that his white colleagues were, like the idea of- as a working reporter- being able to work out of the press box. It was Smith who overcame outside prejudice to find professional success as well; at the end of the movie we learn that Smith eventually became the first black man ever to be voted into the Baseball Writers Association of America.
And if anything, it was Smith who- in one especially intense scene- got through to a hard-headed Robinson, and explained to him exactly what their struggle was about, and how many people it was impacting. It’s Smith who looks Robinson in the eye and basically tells him “Look man, we’re in this together,” a scene which hits home as much as any in the movie.
Beyond all the big-picture stuff there was plenty of smaller stuff which was fascinating about this movie in hindsight as well. There was the incredible attention to detail from Helegand and his staff, things that you might not necessarily know about unless you paid close attention or read press notes on the movie.
After all, it took an extensive scouring of the country simply to find remaining ball-parks that looked like they could’ve come from the era, and also a Herculean effort from the costume department to get the uniforms just right. There was the cinematography, which again was designed to capture the “visceral” effect of being in a ball-park. And there was Boseman, an actor who was assigned the role of “playing” Robinson, and a guy who not only looks like the man he was assigned to depict, but- if you pay close enough attention- has all the same mannerisms as well.
Look, in the end, is ’42’ a perfect movie? Of course not, and if it were up to me, a few things could’ve been changed and improved upon. Specifically, for non-sports dorks like me, the whole idea of how and why the Dodgers selected Robinson the first place is incredibly glossed over, and doesn’t give the non-informed viewer any insight into what a painstaking process it was to pick Robinson over his Negro League contemporaries. Other smallish details could’ve been improved upon as well.
At the same time, if you’re asking me if I not only enjoyed ‘42’ but also learned something too, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart or particularly easy on the eyes.
But in terms of telling the “Jackie Robinson story” I can’t imagine anyone doing it much better.
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