By Laurie Coker
Baseball, THE American pastime – I suppose, but perhaps not as much today as in the past. Still, its heroes are our heroes and few don’t know the significance of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in sports and in the United States. Director/script writer Brian Helgeland’s biopic gives audiences a well-crafted look into the man, the sport and the times. With just the right amount of seriousness and humor, and in spite of a tad too much sugar, 42 gives us a fiery look at turbulent time in history and in baseball.
Social studies teachers often cover the story of Jackie Robinson from books and during Black History Month, and a Google search reveals gobs and gobs of information about the first Black man to ever play major league baseball with an all white team – the Brooklyn Dodgers. Chadwick Beeman plays Robinson, and Harrison Ford gives a delightful performance as Branch Rickey, the baseball executive, who was instrumental in bringing Robinson on to the team and into the limelight – setting him up to make history, but it was Robinson endured countless threats and a barrage of racial insults and taunting. More than anyone, as portrayed here, than even Robinson himself, Rickey changed the face of the sport. Sure Robinson risked everything, but Rickey put him on the field and push all the boundaries for him.
42 is not the first film about Robinson, but it is one of the better ones, I think. Beeman, who incidentally looks a good deal like Robinson, offers and excellent portrayal of the nearly super-human (in skill and restraint) ball player whose changed the face of baseball, and Ford really impressed me. Too often Ford is cast as characters so much like Hans Solo or Indiana Jones, allowing him little opportunity to show range as an actor, but as Rickey, the veteran Ford pleases in every way. My friend felt that Helgeland’s cast pushed lightly on the edge of cartoonish, and he might be slightly right, but I didn’t care. Ford’s gruff, yet obviously compassionate depiction of Rickey is endearing and in such a story, I welcome the infusion of laughter. Sure there a several moments of “awe-shuckness” that some will not appreciate, including several between Robinson and his wife (played adorably by Nicole Beharie) and Robinson and his teammates that felt forced and sugary, but so what? It is a deservedly feel-good film and done with a far lighter hand than others like it.
At the end of it all, I have more praise for the film than not. It is not perfect – entertaining, solid, engaging and overall likable – but not perfect and that works for me. I won’t argue that a better and grittier Robinson film should be made, but Hegeland’s telling covers all the “bases” nicely, even if it on hit and not an over the fence homerun. I am placing a B+ in my grade book – fine family entertainment and not a bad little history lesson either.