Saturday, April 13, 2013

"The World’s Not So Simple."

Why 42 is much more than a baseball flick.

Dodger Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrate team solidarity and acceptance in response to a less than hospitable crowd at a Cincinnati game.
Last evening I enjoyed settling in for a much welcomed break to the cinema with some family.  The movie was 42, the highly anticipated biopic of Jackie Robinson during his inaugural season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Actor Chadwick Boseman offers an admirable and humble performance of the celebrated ballplayer who broke the color barrier in the major leagues.  Boseman's down to earth portrayal is equaled by Harrison Ford's colorful depiction of general manager Branch Rickey, who too risks alienation and death threats by signing on Robinson to his previously (unofficially) segregated ball club.  Ford's characterization of Rickey exemplifies two cultural traits which slowly but surely altered the perceptions of many white Americans.  While Rickey's motivations are in large part due to the allure of monetary profit, he also embraces willingness to change in regard to race relations--an openness which many of the film's Dodgers also eventually accept.  Second is a sense of guilt for acting oblivious to the racial injustice he witnessed throughout his own life.  "We just fought a war to end Fascism," Ford says in the film.  "Now we're fighting a war to end racism."  (Rickey also helped bring Roberto Clemente into the realm of baseball greatness only years later in Pittsburgh.)

In a heartwarming scene when Robinson demands the truth from his manager as to why Robinson was contracted, Rickey conveys an emotional testimony from his own times as a player.  He was pained to see that a black fellow player from his youth could not rise to athletic greatness due to the color of his skin.  As Rickey becomes teary-eyed, he looks Jackie in the face and acknowledges, "You are the future of the game I love."  In other words, America's pastime could never be fully American until all Americans had the right to participate in it equally.  And this is perhaps the most potent message 42 communicates. 

As the film demonstrates, however, the road to that level playing field was a long and arduous one, even in sports.  Robinson runs the gauntlet of slurs and accusations with only his own convictions, coupled with the moral support of his wife and Rickey for much of the film.  Because of its intense and evocative drama, the film rightfully belongs in the cinematic pantheon of The Pride of the Yankees.  Whereas Cary Cooper's character of Lou Gehrig is afflicted with the disease that takes his life and his name, Robinson's affliction is also America's oldest disease: racism.  Numerous scenes throughout the film express this notion in ways that are rightfully repulsive as they are surprising.  Segregation and bitterness in Philadelphia and Cincinnati?  Oh, yes.  We see these best when the Phillies' manager Ben Chapman taunts Robinson at bat with the N-word to the tune of "Hey batta batta batta," a move that dramatically swayed public support in favor of Robinson in real life.

But perhaps the most shocking scene came from the most unexpected of cutaways.  As Robinson prepares to enter the field at an away game, the movie audience is introduced to a father and young son of about eight years old in the ballpark's stands.  They are engaged in a genial conversation, expressing their own love of the game.  The son asks who will do well this year.  The father makes his predictions and also fondly recalls seeing Honus Wagner play decades earlier.  It is almost a nostalgic scene from a Norman Rockwell painting--until Robinson runs out of the dugout to man first base.  In a split second, the father in the stands transitions from his reminiscences to hurling racial obscenities with the rest of the white crowd.  His young son looks around, confused by the sudden change in the crowd's tone.  Desiring to fit in, the boy starts yelling as well.  "Nigger!  We don't want you here!" he bellows.  The horrific yet necessary scene demonstrates how and why racism was pervasive in the wake of World War II and why it remains today.  As with genetic diseases, intolerance is often passed down by generation.  I peered at the audience around me, surprisingly largely composed of children and young adults.  The expressions on their faces were equally telling.  Kids hunkered in their seats with a sickened and uncomfortable demeanor.  I was glad.  Just maybe that scene will make them ponder and think twice before they themselves partake in potentially insensitive words or deeds.  Just maybe.

By this point of the film, Robinson's character has grown more immune to the bigoted shouts from the seats.  "They're just continuing to fight the Civil War," he confesses to fellow Dodger Pee Wee Reese.  And how right he was.  Oddly enough, that same fight continues well into the present.  Perhaps if movie patrons have the openness to learn from the many lessons 42 has to offer, those fights will become less prevalent in our increasingly diverse but still divided society.

The ending credits montage with a snappy jazz tune about Robinson concluded with a thunderous applause from the audience--something that you rarely hear in movie theaters anymore.  That made me happy too.

P.S. More photos and commentary from the England and Normandy trip to come soon.  Promise.

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