Minutes before the first pitch of a 1947 baseball game pitting the hometown Reds against the Brooklyn Dodgers, a father and his pre-teen son are sitting hip-to-hip in the stands of Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. They breezily chat about how many runs Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese could score that day.
Then Jackie Robinson steps onto the field.
Robinson, the Brooklyn rookie still only weeks removed from becoming the first African-American to integrate Major League Baseball in the modern era, is a walking target for racism. Seemingly the entire Crosley Field crowd suddenly rises up to begin pelting him with racial epithets. The elder half of the father-and-son duo is no exception, abruptly morphing from jocular father to viperous heckler.
“(N-word) go home!” the dad screams. “You don’t belong here, boy.”
The son initially appears confused by his father’s vitriol. But before long even the boy joins the chorus of ignorance; even he hurls the n-word at Robinson.
This jarring scene from the new movie “42” portrays the film's overarching effort to educate a wide swath of Americans — reminding adults that society is only a handful of decades removed from ubiquitous racism, while also showing children what racism actually looked like in the mid-20th century. Specifically, “42” breaks down Robinson’s triumph into palatable messages that include the power of family in his life through his closeknit marriage to Rachel Robinson, and the foundational faith of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
Jackie and Rachel
In “42” (the film's title refers to Robinson's jersey number), the plot begins in 1945 as Branch Rickey pontificates to his assistant that he wants to bring a black player to the big leagues. An exhaustive search for the best baseball players in the Negro Leagues yields Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs. In addition to his obvious physical talent, Robinson appeals to Rickey for his leadership qualities (Robinson was an officer in the U.S. Army during World War II) and experience competing alongside white athletes (he lettered in four sports at UCLA — baseball, football, basketball and track & field).
“Picking the right person was very important,” said Erik Strohl, a baseball historian and the senior director of exhibitions and collections at the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Branch Rickey knew he needed a player who was not just accomplished on the field but he had to have the courage and passion to not fight back and to be an example — to be able to withstand everything he was going to be subjected to.”
Actor Chadwick Boseman portrays Robinson in “42” as a man who is both tenacious and world-weary. The main character is savvy enough to recognize the adversity he’ll invite into his life by becoming a Brooklyn Dodger, but once he commits to the course of action, Robinson exhibits such steely resolve as to quash any question of whether he’ll see the journey through to completion.
Yet for all of Robinson’s strength and character, the movie makes it abundantly clear that his triumph over adversity wasn’t only his accomplishment — it was every bit his wife Rachel’s doing, as well. For example, the first thing Robinson does after his initial meeting with Rickey in August 1945 is phone home to Pasadena, Calif., to propose marriage to Rachel. And at numerous critical plot junctures, a soul-searching conversation with Rachel (played in the film by Nicole Beharie) is the only thing that can calm Jackie’s soul. “You’re in my heart,” he tells her on several occasions.
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