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Breaking the color barrier on and off the field


No doubt consciously timed for the opening of the baseball season, the new movie "42" provides a valuable lesson in contemporary American history, showing viewers the culture of baseball and of the nation not all that long ago. As everyone must know, the picture deals with some of Jackie Robinson's struggles as the first black man to play in the Major Leagues. His remarkable achievement in the face of extraordinary challenges remains one of the greatest baseball stories of them all, a fine subject for film and one apparently too little known today.

A four-sport athlete at UCLA, a lieutenant in the United States Army during World War II who was court-martialed for refusing to take a back seat in a military bus, Robinson was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League when Branch Rickey, the legendary baseball executive, offered him the chance to join the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey chose him over other prospects not only for his athletic abilities, but for qualities of character that he knew would be required — patience, tenacity, and above all, courage. Rickey told Robinson that he wanted him to have the guts not to fight back, to endure the inevitable bad calls, cheap shots, insults, brush-back pitches, and spikings without complaining or striking back.

The picture concentrates mostly on Robinson's first year in the National League, showing some glimpses of the verbal and physical abuse he suffered and some of the anguish it caused him. Some teammates drew up a petition stating that they wouldn't play with him, some opposing teams proposed a boycott, and thousands of haters sent obscene letters and death threats. Throughout the season Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), in the face of unimaginable pressure, keeps his promise to Rickey, accepting without retaliating all the hatred heaped on him.

As important as Robinson's heroic struggle, the picture also shows the plight of African Americans, especially in the South, a couple of generations ago, the Jim Crow laws, the separate drinking fountains, the whites-only signs for rest rooms, hotels, restaurants, even ball-park seating — all the daily humiliations inflicted for the simple fact of being black in America. Robinson and his supportive wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), raised in California, encountering the situation for the first time, educate the audience in the burdens of race, a disconcerting lesson in American history.

Despite all that he suffered, Robinson played outstanding baseball, helping the Dodgers win a pennant in 1947, leading the league in stolen bases, and winning Rookie of the Year. After that season, his competitive fire inspired the whole Dodger team for a decade, leading them to five National League pennants and a World Series victory in 1955. He was elected to the Hall of Fame, breaking another historic barrier and leading the way for all the black stars after him.

The director sticks closely to the facts of Robinson's early career, relying on the historic record of games and events, using a cast of relatively unknown actors, including Boseman, who resemble the people they impersonate and who actually look like athletes. In voice and appearance, for example, John C. McGinley provides an uncanny imitation of the legendary broadcaster Red Barber. Beyond Robinson's heroism, he also shows the nobility of Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), the Kentucky native who became Jackie's best friend and supporter on the Dodgers, something of a hero in his own right.

Amazingly, the picture really belongs to Harrison Ford as the brave, brilliant, innovative Branch Rickey. Sanctimonious, sententious, comically folksy, and absolutely charismatic, Ford looks and sounds exactly like the man the sportswriters dubbed "The Mahatma." The script provides Ford with all the best lines and he makes the most of them in what may be the best performance of his career.

Aside from its depiction of the history of the game and the country, "42" recalls something of the way the teams performed decades ago, the aggressive style of Jackie Robinson and the whole National League. The game boasted no multimillionaires, no preening superstars, no fancy uniforms or batting helmets or Astroturf, just baseball, played in a lost era on the green grass of Ebbets Field in the bright clear sunshine of Brooklyn.