Maxwell Kates: “42” – A Film Review

“42” – THE FILM REVIEW

A CELEBRATION OF JACKIE ROBINSON DAY

By Maxwell Kates

Maxwell Kates

Five years ago, in April 2013, Legendary Pictures released a film called “42”. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, the film documented Jackie Robinson’s first season in the major leagues while emphasizing the trials and tribulations involved with breaking the colour barrier.

“42”

The story behind “42” is well known among baseball fans and American historians alike.  After declaring victory over Nazi Germany in May 1945 and Imperialist Japan three months later, American soldiers returned from the Second World War to a country that could not defeat its own Jim Crow laws.  A ‘gentleman’s agreement’ had existed in professional baseball which segregated white and black players into different leagues.

Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is a shrewd businessman, a lawyer, and a devout Methodist.  We learn in the context of the movie that he is haunted by not having done enough to fight segregation as a baseball coach some four decades earlier.  Partly out of religious conviction and partly out of opportunism, he vows to promote a black player to the Dodgers late in the 1945 season.  Rickey admires Jack Roosevelt Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a shortstop on the segregated Kansas City Monarchs, for his talent and his hardnosed style of play, but warns him that the inability to control his volatile temper is tantamount to failure for Rickey’s ‘Great Experiment.’  In other words, Rickey did not need a player not tough enough to fight back, but one tough enough not to fight back.

Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey

The plot line begins by covering Robinson in spring training both with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate, and the Dodgers. After he is promoted to Brooklyn in 1947, the film narrates how Robinson led the Dodgers to the National League pennant in spite of vitriolic players and fans, racially motivated hate mail, and the ubiquity of the press.

The movie was criticized for its lack of character development, a claim I perceived to have been justified.  The Rickey character was developed well, as was Leo Durocher (Chris Meloni), the tenacious yet morally bankrupt manager of the Dodgers who aimed to win at all costs.  However, the movie could have benefit from a more vivid portrayal of Wendell Smith (Andre Holland). Smith worked as a journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier, covering Robinson throughout the 1947 season while attempting to break barriers of his own.  A more thorough description of Robinson’s wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) would have also improved the plotline, as her support was crucial to the success of Robinson’s campaign.

Jackie and Rachel in “42”

“42” shows balance between the players who supported Robinson from those who did not.  Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), Gene Hermanski (Blake Sanders), and Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) were three Dodger teammates depicted to have supported Robinson but their characters were scarcely developed beyond that.  The movie did address the difficult matter of Dixie Walker’s (Ryan Merriman) harsh disapproval of Robinson, arguing it to be economic rather than racial.  However, it does not expand on the complexities of the anti-Robinson camp. This group which includes Brooklyn pitcher Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer) who circulated a petition aimed to prevent Robinson from taking the field, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) and general manager Herb Pennock (Mark Harelik), and St. Louis outfielder Enos Slaughter (David Thoms).

The film aptly portrayed fans in opposing National League cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, or Cincinnati to be vociferous in their hatred of Robinson but did not show balance – there were many white fans in those and other cities who supported Robinson.

The Pee Wee-Jackie Moment —
As depicted in “42”

Another opportunity was missed in the side plot involving Dodgers infielder Bobby Bragan (Derek Phillips).  As the scion of a prominent family in Birmingham, Alabama, Bragan was raised with segregation and was thereby a vocal opponent of integration.  Accordingly, he refused to initially play with Robinson but later recanted.  A fact which would better drive the point but ignored in the movie is that when Jackie Robinson passed away in 1972, Bragan was among his pall bearers.

A poignant scene in the movie took place on the field at Ebbets Field as the Dodgers hosted the Philadelphia Phillies.  Manager Ben Chapman was among Robinson’s most tyrannical opponents and was not afraid to voice his opinion.  Only with the intervention of Dodgers’ infielder Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken) a Philadelphia native and former teammate of Chapman’s did the Philadelphia manager back down.  In actuality, Stanky had been one of the players to sign Higbe’s petition but felt compelled to defend Robinson as one of his teammates.

Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson

Another opportunity missed was during a brawl following a beaning by Pittsburgh pitcher Fritz Ostermueller (Linc Hand).  At no point did the movie refer to prominent National League opponents who supported Jackie Robinson and the brawl scene would have presented this player in Ostermueller’s teammate Hank Greenberg.  The veteran 1st baseman discussed the racism he encountered in his own career with Robinson as the Dodgers rookie led off the base in a game with Pittsburgh.  Cardinals outfielder Stan Musial was another Hall of Famer who supported Robinson.

The movie included several historical errors and inaccuracies.  For example, the Mississippi bred broadcaster Red Barber (John McGinley) did not speak with the brogue of a New York Irishman.  Nor did Robinson wear number 9 with the Montreal Royals – he actually wore number 20.  It is unfortunate that the movie did not expand on Robinson’s time in Montreal, where he led the Royals to the International League pennant in 1946. According to Montreal sportswriter Sam Maltin, “it was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a mob with love instead of lynching on his mind.” Lastly, in light of Robinson’s pact with Rickey to be tough enough not to fight back, the altercation with Dixie Walker in front of the Ben Franklin Hotel could never have taken place.

The real Jackie Robinson at Montreal in 1946.

Why did they make “42”?  For one thing, the events took place in 1947.  Infants born the day Robinson took the field are now 71 years old.  Of the journalists in the Ebbets Field pressbox that afternoon, only Jim Becker of the Associated Press is still alive and he is 92 years old.  The story of Jackie Robinson is an important one and it is important that the legacy of Jackie Robinson and what he stood for continues.  The film received criticism for its liberal use of ‘the N-word.’ To understand history is to understand context. It is only by exposure to unpleasant aspects of the English language, like ‘the N-word,’ that we become aware of their meaning and why they should not be used.

Whom did they make “42” for?  The answer to that question can be expressed by discussing the character whom I understood to have been the most important in the movie. That was the young African American child in Florida who saw Jackie Robinson in a spring training game with his mother.  Viewers learn at the end of the film that the young fellow grew up to be Ed Charles, clubhouse leader of the World Champion 1969 New York Mets. Charles, who died earlier this year, credited Robinson as an inspiration for him growing up in segregated Florida. It was important to bridge the gap with this young fan to show why Jackie Robinson was inspiration to him and many others.

Ed Charles

Of equal significance, there was one scene where Rickey tells Robinson about the white fan on a Brooklyn street who tried to be like Jackie Robinson when he played.  Robinson broke into the major leagues in 1947, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education and seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.   Therefore, it is important to understand the context of the odds Jackie Robinson faced and the insurmountable mental toughness he required to overcome them.  The movie was made for young people of all races and nationalities to understand the harshness of prejudice and that any individual is capable of achieving personal triumph in spite of it.

“42” is definitely worth the price of admission and is an enjoyable movie to watch with an important message to convey.  At one point in the movie, Pee Wee Reese, a Kentucky native, tells Jackie Robinson that “maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42 so that nobody can tell us apart.” Tomorrow being April 15, Pee Wee’s oracle will see the light of day.

Toronto, Canada

April 14, 2013

EPILOGUE

Young Boston Bombing Victim Martin Richard and Family.

One day after I wrote this film review of “42”, the city of Boston was rocked by an unthinkable tragedy. At the finish line of the Boston Marathon, two brothers detonated two homemade explosives, killing three and injuring hundreds. One of the victims, eight year old Martin Richard, lost his life as he awaited his father Bill to complete the marathon. After his death, a photo of young Martin holding a placard bearing the message “No more hurting people. Peace” circulated around the four corners of the globe. In doing so, Martin was carrying out Jackie Robinson’s legacy. His life remains important as it continues to have an impact on others.

Fenway Park, Boston
Jackie Robinson Day
2013

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Post Note. The Pecan Park Eagle also did a review of “42” after attending one of the opening day matinee features in the company of one of the very few remaining survivors who played in that earlier landmark color line-breaking game in 1946, when Jackie Robinson broke the organized baseball race barrier as a member of the Montreal Royals. It was our lucky day at the Eagle to watch the flim with our own Larry Miggins, who played third base for Jersey City that historical day. The date of our first publication on this topic was April 13, 2013. And here’s the link to its contents:

https://bill37mccurdy.com/2013/04/13/42-a-beautiful-profile-in-courage/

Hope you enjoy this doubleheader.

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One Response to “Maxwell Kates: “42” – A Film Review”

  1. Rick B. Says:

    There is some debate about which number Robinson wore with Montreal in 1946, and it is possible that he changed numbers. I’ve often heard 9 but never 20.

    In any case, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation video about Robinson clearly shows him wearing the number 10 (go to the 2:12 point of the video in the following link): http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1402739852

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