42: A Movie Review

Yesterday, my lovely wife and I went and saw the movie 42. The baseball period piece looks at the trials and tribulations Jackie and Rachel Robinson went through when Jackie broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

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If you are looking for an accurate, and historical, depiction of the challenges Robinson faced, you will not get that in a two-hour film. If you want an accurate account of the historical record, that will not happen in this film either. If you want to get the essence of the historical moment, good acting, and an entertaining docudrama, then that is what you will good.

The film begins with Branch Rickey seeking ways to win the National League Pennant. Rickey, who had only been the Dodgers general manager for three years, wanted to steal the thunder from the rival New York Giants, but more so from the Cardinals, the team he built through player development in a minor league system he helped established some 20 years prior. Excellently played by Harrison Ford, the acting echoes Ford’s finest work since Witness and Blade Runner. My wife and I forgot we were watching the same man who was Han Solo, Indiana Jones,  the President in Air Force One, and Jack Ryan. We really believed he embodied Branch Rickey. The relationship between Rickey and Robinson is a key element in the film and touching at many key points in the film and in Jackie’s journey.

However, the key relationship in the movie is the one between Jackie and his wife, Rachel, also well performed by Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie. You do feel the tension and the chaos they endured from the historical significance that the time period placed on them. Other excellent performers include Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith, and Alan Tudyk’s racist rants as the Phillies manager Ben Chapman. It was uncomfortable at times to listen to the language and hate being spewed at Jackie, but Tudyk’s performance created “sympathy” for Robinson, something the character Branch Rickey pointed out that it would.

The film does claim its fine share of historical inaccuracies including the events surrounding Leo Durocher’s 1947 suspension. The film portrays Durocher’s suspension as something to do with an affair with a Hollywood starlet while in reality the suspension involved gambling with players.

The film also does not include the thoughts of Happy Chandler, the newly appointed commissioner of baseball. Chandler said of the inclusion of blacks into baseball,

“If they can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal (and) in the South Pacific, they can play ball in America.”
While these details are minor, it is after all a film designed to entertain first and foremost. My wife loved the film and wants to see it again. I, for one, would not object. The whole time I sat watching it, I was stunned by the cinematography and by Harrison Ford. The recreations of Ebbet’s Field, Shibe Park, the Polo Grounds, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, and Sportsman Park in St. Louis. The CGI effects were amazing to see those old ballparks come to life.
Ebbet's Field

Ebbet’s Field – Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers

Sure, the director, Brian Helgeland, took a few liberties with history, but I think the essence of the story is what matters. I did visit the website for the film and was disappointed that there were few resources for teachers.
As soon as the film was over, my wife turned to me and mentioned that I would not be able to show the film in my history classes because of the use of the use of the “N” word. I told I could if the parents signed off. I then told her that Jackie Robinson is not even in the textbook for the history class I teach. Thankfully, I don’t use the textbook to decide what to teach. Over the years I have collected student news magazine articles from Junior Scholastic and UpFront to fill in the missing part of Jackie Robinson.  The film is something I would consider using combined with historical documents. I don’t think you can teach Jackie’s story without telling what he went through on and off the field (Here’s a sample of some hate mail). The film does a good job of describing that, but as an historian, I wanted more details.
But in the end, it is a film. If you want an accurate historical account, go watch a documentary. If you want an entertaining film, 42 will do it.
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