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Neil Pond
American Profile
April 24, 2013
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Jackie Robinson story is rousing true tale of baseball’s first black superstar

Starring Chadwick Boseman
& Harrison Ford
Directed by Brian Helgeland
PG-13, 128 min.


Truth, we’ve always heard, is stranger than fiction. Sometimes truth is better than fiction, too.

That’s certainly the case with it comes to the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier in the 1940s. What Robinson did was so revolutionary, the resistance he faced was so formidable, and the character he demonstrated was so upstanding...well, it’s a tale that Hollywood couldn’t much improve by adding any shine to it, because everything’s already there.

That’s why director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s new Robinson biopic, “42,” dramatizes the baseball icon and his achievements but hews closely to the facts, sometime even down to a specific game’s pitches, hits and plays. Not to say it’s a dry, drab, droning history lesson, because it’s anything but.

“42” is an uplifting, rousing crowd-pleaser, and a powerful, moving tribute to a Baseball Hall of Famer who, especially for a lot of younger viewers, today might not be much more than the subject of a Black History Month school paper. This movie brings Robinson (who died in 1972) to life in a vibrant, electrifying new light, both for those who remember as well as those who have little or no idea.

Taking its title from his Brooklyn Dodgers jersey number, “42” begins in 1945, when Robinson, fresh out of WWII and playing baseball in the segregated Negro leagues, is plucked by Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey to try out for Brooklyn’s farm team, the Montreal Royals.

Rickey (Harrison Ford) knows the risks of bringing a black player into the lily-white Major Leagues. He knows that player will be booed, baited with slurs, targeted by opposing pitchers with viciously hurled speed balls aimed at his head, and threatened by racist baseball fans.

But he also knows the upside: Good black players will help ball teams win games, and boost attendance by black fans.

Rickey also knows that integrating baseball is simply the right thing to do.

Chadwick Boseman, after numerous appearances on several TV shows, steps into his first big leading role with a remarkable resemblance to the character he’s playing. He looks a lot like Robinson, and he does a great job expressing No. 42’s formidable skills on the field, his remarkable restraint as opposing players and coaches assail him with taunts, and the powerful inner strength that guided Robison to become America’s first black baseball superstar that fateful season in 1947, opening the door once and for all to other players of color.

The movie is filled with actors playing real-life players and other figures who factored into Robinson’s story, including Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), Brooklyn fielders Pee Wee Reece (Lucas Black) and Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), sportscaster Red Barber (John C. McGinley), black journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), and Philadelphia Phillies coach Ben Chapman (Alan Tuydk), whose merciless hail of the n-word and other racist insults from the dugout during one game pushes Robinson as close as he ever comes to the breaking point.

Robinson’s religious faith is a subtle thread woven throughout much of the plot, which should help “42” find a wider audience among faith-based audiences who often feel Hollywood ignores them. Rickey, his manager and mentor, uses Biblical metaphors in business negotiations and chastises his philandering team manager, Durocher, with a Scriptural admonition about adultery. Robinson encouragingly tells his wife (Nicole Beharie), “God built me to last,” a line that Rickey later proudly echoes.

And here’s another movie where you need to stay for the credits. As they scroll, you’ll better understand the significance of “42” as one of the most powerful numbers in all of baseball and how it’s uniquely honored today.
 

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