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Review: ’42’ plays it safe, successfully retells Jackie Robinson’s story

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped over a white, chalked line on his way to first base. In doing so, he also stepped over baseball’s color line to become the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball.

It was a defining moment for baseball, and for the first time, principled men could sincerely begin to call baseball America’s pastime.

At the time, however, the color line did more than leave black Americans sitting in foul territory in the baseball stadium. It extended all across the country – to restrooms, restaurants, buses and water fountains. By challenging segregation on the baseball diamond, Robinson and Branch Rickey, the man who signed him, challenged segregation everywhere. 

It’s an incredible story, and a difficult one to tell satisfactorily.

The movie “42,” starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford, is director Brian Helgeland’s retelling of that story. It is set to open in theaters Friday.

Robinson’s whole life is a biography that reads like fiction, but Helgeland, in “42,” appropriately focuses his cultural impact on the context of that 1947 season. During this time, we see Robinson’s short stint in the Negro Leagues, his engagement and subsequent marriage and the process leading up to his debut in all-white baseball. 

The film also emphasizes that Robinson did not make history on his own. Without Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers, he would never have even put on a minor league uniform. And without the support of his wife, he might not have been able to endure without retaliation such extraordinary hatred, which would have proliferated the refrain of the time that “blacks don’t belong in baseball.” 

A scene with Robinson, distraught and hurt, and Rickey embracing in the tunnel under the dugout powerfully conveys just how much they both needed each other in those turbulent days.

Boseman and Ford were both tremendous in their performances. Boseman captured the essence of being a young black man in the Jim Crow era who had to be a “fine gentleman and a great baseball player” to convince his critics that he belonged. Ford shines in his role as the no-nonsense, forward-thinking, innovator that the real Rickey was.

While the movie successfully retells the story of Robinson with relative accuracy and has some great moments, it ultimately falls short of being a home run. 

Nothing about what America put Robinson through, or how he dealt with it, can be classified as melodramatic, but overly sensationalized writing throughout mitigated the impact of the movie. Instead of letting his story tell itself, too many scenes were forced attempts at garnering emotional reactions and others, with major implications, were reduced to slapstick comedy. 

He’s put on a pedestal from the very beginning, even called “superhuman” several times early on, and only during a few fleeting moments, mostly during barrages of racial epithets, can viewers really identify with Robinson’s plight.

This shouldn’t be the case for a man whose accomplishments were so significant that he was the first to have his number universally retired by all teams in his sport and is honored each year on his own day, “Jackie Robinson Day” on April 15, on which every player on every team wears the number 42. 

It’s an easy and understandable mistake to make, but the writers of “42” were too infatuated with the legend of Robinson to tell the story about the man. They played it safe and spent the whole time patting him on the back. As a result, viewers don’t see true character development and, thus, don’t get to sufficiently appreciate his accomplishments.

If you’re a baseball enthusiast with high expectations for a film about one of its foremost heroes, this movie is like getting hit by a pitch ­- a little painful but totally worth it.

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