From its formation in the late 19th century until well into the 1940s, major league baseball operated in accordance with an unwritten rule that the sport was to remain strictly segregated. The tacit understanding among the owners stipulated that no blacks were to be signed by any clubs, thereby frustrating the aspirations of many African Americans who dreamed of playing professionally.
In the wake of World War II, however, this state of affairs rankled Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a man who fervently felt that to remain the national pastime, baseball needed to integrate. After all, thousands of African American soldiers were returning home to face discrimination based on their skin color despite having been willing to die for their country in the conflict overseas.
So, in 1945, Rickey decided to challenge the status quo by being the first general manager to put a black ballplayer on the field. However, he anticipated that the landmark moment might be met with considerable resistance, given the virulent racism still existing throughout much of the nation.
Therefore, he knew that the choice of the person to break the color barrier was critical, because he would have to be an individual blessed not only with extraordinary athletic talent but with the requisite strength of character, namely, an amalgam of integrity, restraint, and resolve that would assure the success of the ground breaking endeavor. The candidate he settled upon was Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman), a college educated veteran Army officer who was an All-Star second baseman in the fledgling Negro leagues.
The two forged an alliance after Robinson assured his boss that he wouldn’t respond in kind to any of the racial epithets or vile vitriol about to be hurled in his direction while on the road. As it turned out, even some of his own new teammates initially took issue with his joining the Dodgers in 1947, the year he was brought up to the big leagues.
That historic achievement is painstakingly recreated in 42, a poignant cinematic portrait of an American legend directed by Brian Helgeland. The film carefully chronicles the humiliations Robinson was forced to endure, such as “Colored Only” bathrooms, separate accommodations, the relentless heckling from the bigoted fans in the stands and his rivals in the opposing dugout.
Fortunately, Jackie managed to maintain his dignity and composure, thereby opening the door for the full integration of baseball for other African Americans waiting in the wings. The movie is an emotionally draining biopic featuring Oscar quality performances from Harrison Ford and Chad Boseman in what is easily Hollywood’s best offering of the year thus far.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for epithets, ethnic slurs, and mature themes. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.