In an early scene in 42, the new Jackie Robinson biopic, Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey looks through a whole pile of scouting reports, trying to find exactly the right guy to integrate baseball. He lingers on Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s file; army officer, college graduate, four sport athlete. Not as famous as Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson, but a good enough player so that no one could question his ability to play big league ball. What about his temperment? Too hot-headed? Then Rickey sees a note in the file, and his face brightens. “A Methodist,” he crows. “I’m a Methodist, and so is he. This is the guy.”
If you’re going to make a movie about a seminal character like Jackie Robinson, it seems to me that the first decision to be made is this: is the movie about the person, or his impact? In other words, should the movie focus on Jackie Robinson, on his personal life and his struggles and weaknesses and how he overcame them, or on the impact his life had on others, his teammates, opponents, the nation generally? What this film does is combine the two. It’s a film about absolute morality, a film that says something like this: you were either for Jackie Robinson’s right to play major league baseball, or you were against it, and that decision was a fundamentally moral one.
And that’s how his Dodger teammates line up. Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) and Bobby Bragan (Derek Phillips) and Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer) never could overcome their prejudices, and opposed him. (Bragan later recanted, which the film depicts, but it’s not given much dramatic emphasis). And Walker and Higbe are ‘punished’ for it by Rickey–traded to (shudder) Pittsburgh. Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken) come around, take Jackie’s side, publicly support him. Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) is pro-Jackie from the beginning. And this was all a function of their superior moral sense.
Chadwick Boseman is terrific as Robinson, as is Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson. Boseman looks like a ballplayer. He runs bases, swings the bat, fields a grounder, throws, and never once does it seem actorly. In some baseball movies, the players just don’t look right. (John Goodman as Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig come to mind.) Boseman’s terrific in the role. He captures Jackie’s fire, his competitive passion, his pride. This is a fierce Jackie Robinson, not in the least meek and long-suffering, which gives his forbearance when pelted with racist epithets some real power. Beharie’s great too. Rachel Robinson was a California girl, from an upper middle-class family. In one early scene she stares, uncomprehending, at a ‘white’s only’ sign on a restroom door. Rachel Robinson has to be a thankless role–the virtuous, loyal spouse–but Beharie (and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay and direction) create a woman of humor and intelligence, who seems at times rather bemused by this odd racism thing. (And who makes a point of hiring a white caregiver for Jackie Jr.).
And Harrison Ford is tremendous. Gruff and uncompromising, Rickey seems perpetually outraged at the vicissitudes of a racist backlash he nonetheless completely anticipated. It’s a crafty performance–his moral outrage perfectly calibrated for each exigency. It’s valuable to remember that Jackie Robinson didn’t just decide one day to try out for the Dodgers, any more than Rosa Parks didn’t just decide one day she didn’t feel like riding in the back of the bus. Both acts were more than just morally subversive–they were carefully calculated.
In the best scene in the movie, Jackie is subjected to absolutely unremitting racist abuse from Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk–say it ain’t so, Wash!), in a game in Philadelphia. In a tight pitchers’ duel, Robinson struggles at the plate, and with every pop to short, Chapman lets him have it, n-word after n-word. Finally, Eddie Stanky leaves the Dodger dugout and confronts Chapman, offers to fight him, even. (I assume this actually happened, and it made me happy: scrappy little Eddie Stanky, all 5’8 and 170 of him, was the one Dodger most likely to punch out the other team’s manager). Chapman backs down, and in an interview afterwards, says to reporters that he didn’t think his language was out of line. After all, he calls Hank Greenberg a kike, and Joe DiMaggio a wop and what’s the big deal? But in Tudyk’s performance, there’s this glimmer of fanaticism; you can see this isn’t just about routine bench jockeying; he hates what Jackie Robinson stands for.
And look, I don’t question for a second the central premise of this movie. Obviously, racism is just flat out evil, and obviously Jackie Robinson had an absolute right to pursue his chosen profession. Every year, Major league baseball honors the Robinson legacy by having every player, on April 15, on every team, wear 42. This is right and proper and fitting. And I do consider Pee Wee Reese, a guy from Kentucky, heroic, when he put his arm around Jackie, a gesture of solidarity, in a game in Cincinatti when the abuse was starting to really rain down. And I think it’s awesome that Stanky nearly punched out Ben Chapman, and that Ralph Branca (however awkwardly), told Jackie that he should just go ahead and shower with the white players, that it was no big deal.
And it’s a good, inspiring movie. I liked it. My wife, who doesn’t like baseball, liked it too.
I just wish. . . .
Okay, Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Stanky were good guys and Dixie Walker and Kirby Higbe and Bobby Bragan were bad guys, and I get that, and don’t disagree. But wasn’t this, in part generational? Pee Wee was 28 in 1947, an established young star. 1947 was Ralph Branca’s rookie year, and he was also the best pitcher on the team; his job unthreatened. In 1947, Dixie Walker was 36, near the end. Kirby Higbe was 32, a hard-drinking Southerner, from South Carolina. His autobiography, The High Hard One, is terrific, a rolicking memoir of Depression-era baseball, as well as an alcoholic’s confessional. It seems a shame to see a complex and interesting man relegated to the role of ‘racist villain’. Dixie Walker became a highly respected hitting coach, especially known for his work with Jimmy Wynn, a great black player for Houston. As for Bobby Bragan, he was one of those guys hanging on by his toenails to a big-league job, a 29-year old backup catcher, who batted .190 in 1947. He had to know what Robinson meant to a guy like him–an influx of black talent, competing for one of the 400 major league jobs. If Robinson succeeded, Bragan had to think his career would be over–and that’s also what happened. Roy Campanella joined the team in 1948, and the job he took was Bragan’s.
I am glad that the film makes a big deal of Wendell Smith, the reporter for the Pittsburgh Harold-American, a black newspaper, who Rickey hired at 50 dollars a month to be Jackie’s friend, confidant, chauffeur and amanuensis. Smith was every bit the pioneer Jackie Robinson was, excluded from press boxes, typing game stories with a typewriter on his lap in the stands. But what the film does not say is that Smith had been agitating for baseball integration for years, nor that he was the man who recommended Robinson to Branch Rickey.
In fact, Branch Rickey broke the color barrier for many reasons, some of them moral and religious to be sure, but also because he wanted first access to the black talent pool that would follow baseball’s integration. And while he certainly paid Jackie and Pee Wee the same salary, he didn’t pay either of them all that much. Owners didn’t, back then.
In other words, the baseball fan and historian in me sees the potential for ten much more nuanced and interesting films about Jackie Robinson. Which is not to say that the film we have isn’t a good one, or an important one, or an inspiring one. I liked it immensely, loved the performances, love the importance of Jackie Robinson in our history, which the film does get pretty well right. The fact that other, maybe better films kept peeking out around the corners doesn’t negate what this one accomplished.