Today’s the day every player in Major League Baseball will wear 42 on their uniforms as the annual salute to Jackie Robinson. Not-so-coincidentally, the movie “42” was tops at the box office this weekend, and that’s a good thing, because it’s important for a new generation to understand the dangers and difficulties Robinson encountered in 1947, when he became the first black man allowed to play in the big leagues.
The movie isn’t great, although it’s not bad, either. I’m always leery of any movie that says it’s “based on a true story,” as if that’s license to fictionalize parts of it and over-dramatize others. In that way, “42” plays like a TV movie, hitting on most of the important points in that year in Robinson’s life, but adding too much melodrama and particularly an overbearing soundtrack that reminds you every time something “important” is about to happen. Those musical cues are unnecessary in a story that’s already so compelling.
Chadwick Boseman, the unknown who plays Robinson, is fine in the role and, fortunately, looks like an athlete, particularly in the base-stealing scenes. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford chews every bit of scenery in sight as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who unilaterally decided to integrate baseball, chose Robinson as the man to do it, and then coached him through the nearly-impossible task of ignoring the haters. In not lashing out at those who were so vocal in their opposition to his breaking the color barrier, Robinson’s strength of character and restraint were a predecessor to Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights campaign more than a decade later.
It’s also important for those who think they know the Robinson story to understand Rickey’s role. Sure, he was a businessman who figured bringing blacks into the league would mean more blacks paying to get into his ballpark, but why is that wrong? I don’t have a problem with someone who does the right thing and profits from it. I have a problem with someone who does the wrong thing and profits from it.
The people who made “42” didn’t make a perfect movie, but they made a decent one. If they profit from it and some viewers get a history lesson, that’s fine, too.