Film - 42


Racism, abuse and baseball as Steve Taylor-Bryant remembers 42, the story of Jackie Robinson's rise to fame...

With the likes of The Help, 12 Years a Slave and, to a certain extent, Django Unchained, cinema goers have been treated to some fantastic portrayals of the lives of the oppressed. Whether it is the older tales of slavery in the 19th century or what life was like in the 20th century for the racially targeted we are all very aware that our history is paved with the discriminatory attitudes of those in power. On occasion, a more liberal minded politician or business owner has come along and done their bit to repent the sins of their predecessors and this is where 42 proves it worth.

Sport is always a good place to start if you want to break down some boundaries. The majority of a nation’s citizens follow one sport or another and the sports stars and managers speak more to the people than politicians do. But someone always has to be first. In the case of Major League Baseball it was Jackie Robinson.

The film starts in 1945. The Second World War has been won, Japan has surrendered and the troops have returned home. Black men were allowed to lay down their lives for their country only to return to hatred and segregation. The Brooklyn Dodgers Organisation in Baseball has an owner that wants to change the world, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), and he begins the search for the first man of colour to grace the professional game. Against the advice of, well, just about everyone, Rickey selects a young short-stop from the negro league, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), and offers him a substantial contract if he can work his way up from the minor league to the Dodgers first team. Against all the odds, Robinson makes it and the Dodgers go on and have one of the most remarkable seasons in Baseball history.

Sounds like any other sports biography film doesn’t it? And I suppose if you are morally able to ignore the horrific abuse suffered by Robinson on his way up then it’s just another good sports film. Those of us with a conscience however, it is impossible to not be shocked and moved. When the Dodgers first play the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947, Robinson is cruelly abused by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) a man who had previously abused the Jewish players and the Italian players, a man with an ingrained hatred of anyone different. Major League Baseball punished Chapman by making him have his photograph taken with Robinson (they held a bat as Chapman wouldn't shake his hand), meanwhile Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) is suspended by the league for a whole year for the audacity to sleep with a married woman. That sentence there shows you how backward and morally inept we as a people were in our past.

The way Robinson handled himself on and off the pitch should be an inspiration to the new generation, who appear to have slipping standards in behaviour towards their fellow man. I am preaching, yes. The film spoke to me and I feel the weight of history upon my shoulders. I am in a privileged position and, if a film teaches me a lesson, why shouldn’t I share it?

This is the power of 42. It is not a heavy film emotionally but it does enough to make you sit back and think. Boseman as Robinson is flawless in his execution of possibly one of the hardest figures in sport to portray, the lesser cast like John C. McGinley as announcer Red Barber doing his best to keep some etiquette on the airwaves, and Andre Holland as black journalist and Robinson’s confidante Wendell Smith, accompany the main plot and performances well. Harrison Ford produces possibly his best celluloid performance and is convincing as the man that tried to learn from his racist tendencies and change the world. But it is Alan Tudyk that deserves a huge round of applause. I imagine playing Ben Chapman would be very hard for anyone. I have tried to get into a frame of mind where I could use the vitriol he aimed at Robinson et al, and have found it impossible, but Tudyk is stunning in his job. You are transfixed by the performance, in awe of the delivery even whilst being disgusted by the use of language.

The whole of Baseball retired the number 42 as a tribute to Jackie Robinson and the rest of the world should watch the film and learn not to repeat the sins of our forefathers.

Image - IMDb.
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