42: Fields of Green
by Sandra Olmsted
Director Brian Helgeland’s bio-pic, 42, chronicles Jack Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) crossing the color line to play in the white Baseball (National) Leagues of post-WWII America.
Although Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) first claims he wants to bring up some African-American players who can help bring home the pennant and draw the African-American fans and dollars, later he admits a more personal reason. However, the money theme rings truer throughout the film because money is used to encourage fairness and to smooth acceptance of social change.
Even Robinson uses money to convince a service station attendant to let him use a restroom in Missouri, when the American Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, for which Robinson plays, travel to a game in Chicago. Rickey uses money as a carrot and a club to force the coaching stuff and players to treat Robinson decently and to accept that Robinson is present and other African-American players are coming. Players and coaches choose to be nice first because of economic necessity and later out of team loyalty and friendship.
While the story of Robinson breaking the color barrier is one of the great stories of the twentieth century, in compressing the landmark events of just 1945-1947 into the film, writer-director Helgeland and producer Thomas Tull gloss over the details and some of the drama.
The story holds few surprises, but then neither does an afternoon at the ballpark, accept for who will win, and those who know baseball history know how this story ends; consequently, Helgeland should have created some suspense. When Robinson and his new wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie) arrive at spring training the first year, they stay with families because of Jim Crow laws, and Rickey picks those families for their “significance,” which remains an undeveloped theme in the film.
Rickey also sends Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a black sports writer who wants to sit in the press box but isn’t allowed, to chaperone Jackie and Rachel, who were raised in California and are unfamiliar with the unspoken rules and consequences that other African-Americans faced because of Jim Crow. There’s a nearly obligatory threat of Klan action and narrowish escape, and the n-word is used frequently throughout the film.
Robinson’s short time playing for the Dodgers’ farm team, Montreal Royals, doesn’t get much screen time, which begs the question of whether Robinson was more accepted by more enlightened neighbors to the north than he was in his own country. Once moved up to Brooklyn, Robinson’s most of soon-to-be teammates sign a petition against playing with him, but that’s quelled by Rickey and Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) with the threat of trades or being sent down.
Meanwhile, Rickey provides the fatherly advice and comfort that Robinson never knew because his father abandoned the family right after Jackie was born. Robinson promises his own newborn son that he will have a father who will stays. Soon, the whole team is experiencing discrimination because of Robinson, angering some players, but even that plot twist is unresolved. One of the few scenes showing nuanced writing style is Robinson being convinced to shower with the team, but mostly the writing has a boiler plate feel because events aren’t dramatized and too easily money talks and racism walks.
Despite the “show-me-the-money” theme of dollars motivating everyone, the film has real heart because of the performances, Ford channels a larger-than-life Rickey. Boseman, who appears to be a relative unknown but has a solid film acting resume and a longer theater resume as a playwright, director and actor, lets the anger and hurt that Robinson had to control and conceal play over his face and inhabit his eyes. While all the actors in the film are batting 300, for Ford and Boseman the smell of Oscar is as strong as that of ballpark franks.
Long gone ballparks in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, the Polo Grounds in the Bronx, and Brooklyn’s own Ebbets Field reappears by the magic of CGI.
Unfortunately for Cardinal fans, there’s no nostalgic visits to Sportsman’s Park, but the Dodgers do play the Cardinals, and a mention of the Cards’ 1946 World Series victory in this era garnered cheers from the film’s St. Louis audience.
The film’s tone and pacing evokes an afternoon at the ballpark, and even less-than-avid fans of the National Pastime will long for the “peanuts, popcorn,and Cracker Jacks” of an imagined past and an idealized summer afternoon at the old ball yard.
A Warner Bros. release, 42: The True Story of an American Legend is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language 128 minutes. 42: The True Story of an American Legend is in theaters now. (More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at www.thecinematicskinny.com.)
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