Telling Jackie Robinson's Story

“42” has a lot to live up to – including a 1950 bio-pic starring the baseball great.

At first glance, it smacks of a mismatch, like the Dodgers battling a rookie league team: A modern, major Hollywood film featuring one of the all-time biggest box office draws vs. a 63-year-old low-budget, black-and-white relic, filled with corniness (an introductory voice-over that intones, “This is the story of a boy and his dream”), cheesy production values (pages flying off a calendar to denote passage of years) and a star who seems stiff at times, even though he’s playing himself.

But "42," which hits theaters Friday to tell the story of Jackie Robinson, has much to live up to – including the 1950 film, "The Jackie Robinson Story."
There's an inherent challenge in doing the right thing when trying to separate a man – especially an extraordinary, complex one – from his legend. "42," starring the relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who enlisted a man brimming with athletic prowess, intelligence and pride to break baseball's insidious color line, carries a responsibility far beyond entertainment.
It's likely the filmmakers watched "The Jackie Robinson Story," a flawed, if well meaning work that's now less a movie than a precious slice of history. Robinson plays himself. His lack of acting ability is made up for in part by the presence of a young Ruby Dee, who, as Rachel Robinson, exudes the grace that would mark her career.
Even if he wasn't as great at delivering dialogue as snaring ground balls, we get a taste of how Jackie Robinson kept his promise to Rickey to keep his cool – enduring threats and taunts sanitized for 1950 audiences, but come across no less menacing and nasty. The most effective off-the-field sequence is a silent one: The newlywed Robinsons, on their way to a groundbreaking spring training in Florida, ride in the back of a bus – a scene filmed five years before Rosa Parks took her stand in Montgomery.
But it's the on-the-field shots where the Robinson legend comes to life. Sure, he slams a couple of home runs, but he was never a feared slugger. More to the point, we see him play his all-out style of baseball: dancing off the bases, tearing around the diamond, stealing home – an approach that matches the character of a determined man who fought hard every step of the way.
The movie ends with Robinson in Washington telling Congress his story, juxtaposed against an image of the Statue of Liberty and a soundtrack of “America The Beautiful.”
 “I do know that democracy works for those who are willing to fight for it,” Robinson says. The capper is old-school hokey – but still marks a very effective and affecting finale.
But Robinson’s story doesn’t end there. For fuller versions, check out Arnold Rampersad’s great biography and Robinson’s autobiography, “I Never Had it Made,” published in 1972, the year he died far too young at age 53. In the book, Robinson speaks out about racism and other social issues, expressing strong feelings that offer a stark contrast to his movie speech. “I cannot salute the flag; I know I am a black man in a white world,” Robinson wrote. “In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I never had it made.”
“42,” which arrives amid Monday’s 66th anniversary of the day Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field as a major leaguer, focuses on 1947, a pivotal year in sports history and American social history. That’s fine. But perhaps there's another movie to be made about the man in the quarter-century beyond the year that established the legend. In the meantime, check out a trailer below for "42," which is far more than just another uniform number:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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