'42' confronts racism with quiet dignity

Published: Thursday, April 11 2013 6:55 p.m. MDT

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in “42." (Warner Bros.) Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in “42." (Warner Bros.)

"42" is certainly not the first movie to confront racism. It isn't even the first movie to confront racism in sports. But it may be the best example of how to confront racism in general. It's definitely going to be one of the most memorable.

"42" tells the story of how Jackie Robinson crossed baseball's color barrier in the late 1940s to become the first African-American to play in the major leagues. It is named after Robinson's jersey number, which has been retired by all of baseball in his honor. Featuring a lead character and based on a true story most of America is familiar with, "42" is not so much about plot and suspense as it is a powerful portrait of the man who ushered in professional sports' own civil rights movement.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in “42." (Warner Bros.) Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in “42." (Warner Bros.)

The message of "42" is not merely the evils of racism, or that our country has a lot of demons in the past. Its point is made in a powerful exchange between Robinson and Branch Rickey, team president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As Rickey gives Robinson a rundown of the kind of adversity he will encounter with the Dodgers, the ballplayer feels skeptical about the president's motives and instructions:

Robinson: You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?

Rickey: No, I want a player who has the guts NOT to fight back.

What Rickey understood then, and "42" understands now, is that the stakes were too high for Robinson to give in to petty confrontations and baiting, as justified as a response might be. If baseball was going to be integrated, it had to be with dignity, not fists.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Andre Holland as Wendell Smith in “42." (Warner Bros.) Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Andre Holland as Wendell Smith in “42." (Warner Bros.)

From here the movie takes us through a series of scenarios that show Robinson (played by relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman) enduring persecution that is often difficult to watch. Instead of universal support or universal aggression, fans, teammates and opponents alike seem split in their responses to Robinson's presence. Some cheer, some toss slurs and some, like Robinson's wife, Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie), endure along with him.

Along the way we get recreations of heartwarming moments (most any scene involving Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black of "Friday Night Lights") and infamous ones, such as when Robinson is berated at close distance by opposing manager Ben Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk, of TV's "Firefly").

Boseman portrays Robinson as a man just barely containing his rage under a veneer of quiet dignity. Imdb.com notes that Spike Lee tried to get a Jackie Robinson film off the ground back in the '90s, with plans for Denzel Washington to star. Though Washington's traditional gravitas would have been effective, watching Boseman's fresh effort is almost more of a pleasure.

On the other end of the race and fame spectrum, Harrison Ford plays the cigar-chomping Rickey as the portly 70-year-old he probably was, which is to say, not "Harrison Ford." The result might be Ford's most notable performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in 1985's "Witness."

Director Brian Helgeland's "42" may not be the greatest baseball movie of all time (Robert Redford was initially in the running to play Rickey, which would have been an interesting nod to his role in "The Natural"), but it may tell baseball's most important story. It's a little rough around the edges for young children, but well worth the time of anyone interested in witnessing one of America's most critical transitions, and the brave people who helped it happen.

Bereft of any sexual content or substantial violence, the PG-13 rating is earned exclusively via racial epithets and some deity-related profanity, though some may consider the persistent barrage of race-based insults more difficult to endure than today's standard R-rated fare.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College and appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show." You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.

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