Faith & Film: 42

“42” is the number of the jersey worn by the great Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is still worn by MLB players on the opening day of the season every year. “42” is also the name of the new movie which chronicles this significant moment. Whether you’re a baseball fan or not, there are many good reasons to see “42.”

“42” is as much about the Branch Rickey, the colorful, cigar-chomping, Bible-quoting owner of the Dodgers, wonderfully played by Harrison Ford. Even though award season is a long way off, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ford nominated as best supporting actor. After the end of World War II, Rickey believes the time is right to integrate Major League Baseball. He is willing to be the one to take this bold step. Rickey carefully scrutinizes prospective players from the Negro League, and settles upon Robinson, a UCLA graduate from California who served in the Army during the War. When Rickey interviews Robinson, he tells him that he will undoubtedly receive much verbal abuse, and even worse, if he plays. Rickey wants someone who is strong enough not to fight back, to “turn the other cheek,” as Jesus suggested. Rickey knew that Robinson would be singled out by the press as proof that Black players did not belong in the Majors if he did fight back.

After a year playing with Brooklyn’s minor league affiliate in Montreal, Rickey signs Robinson to play with the Dodgers in 1947. Many of his own teammates signed a petition refusing to play with him, but relented under pressure from Rickey. Robinson was frequently booed from the stands and hit by opposing pitchers. Vicious racial slurs and even death threats were hurled at him. In a powerful, horrifying scene, the coach of the Philadelphia Phillies taunted Robinson with slurs, including the “N” word throughout an entire game. Robinson kept his composure, and scored the winning run against the Phillies.

Some reviews have called “42” “square” and “old fashioned” in its straightforward approach to these events of a not-so-distant past. The straightforward approach taken by writer-director Brian Helgeland serves its subject matter well. Helgeland deserves credit for bringing this important story to the screen in an engrossing and entertaining fashion. The production values are first rate; I could almost taste the dust when Jackie slides into second base. Chadwick Boseman gives a fine performance as Robinson, as does Nicole Beharie as his supportive wife Rachel. The scenes of the newly married couple are nicely done. Rachel loves Jackie and is a source of strength for him during his trials.

I recently heard that the number of moviegoers over 40 was up last year, thanks to well made films like “Argo” and “Lincoln,” which appealed to older audiences. I hope many of the same moviegoers will embrace “42.” This is an important movie about men and women who seize the moment to do the right thing, even though they know it will be difficult. Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and many others were courageous in the pursuit of justice and equality, and helped to pave the way for Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks a decade later.

In the theater where I saw “42,” spontaneous applause erupted at the end of the movie. I’d call “42” a home run.

Tom Condon, OP