Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, Alan Tudyk, T.R. Knight, John C. McGinley
US theatrical: 12 Apr 2013 (General release)
“Look at me, look at me.” Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) is in the stands, looking at her husband Jackie (Chadwick Boseman). He’s on a baseball field, one of many represented in 42, and he’s enduring yet another onslaught of racist invective. The words are hard to hear, even now, in a fancy big screen celebration of Robinson’s first year as a Brooklyn Dodger. And as Rachel looks at Jack during this scene, you’re left hoping that indeed, he will look at her and in her, find the wherewithal to go on.
The moment exemplifies what 42 does well. It’s true that the movie, which opened 12 April, three days before today, Jackie Robinson Day, also features scenes that are trite, that opt for simple-seeming oppositions of villains and heroes rather than complicated intersections of many individuals’ desires and fears. But in this moment, as Rae waits and Jackie bears up, you see their remarkable partnership, the agreement they made to enter into this effort to integrate the MLB so long ago, the costs they paid and the resilience they needed, the intricate understandings they shared and many horrors they withstood.
It’s to 42‘s immense credit that it focuses on this relationship as means to tell the story of baseball’s integration. Certainly, the movie showcases the player’s considerable skills, granting Boseman an opportunity to imitate Robinson’s brilliant base running (he stole 29 during his first season with the Dodgers) and also displaying on the intellectual components of the game (Jackie is a “natural” athlete, perhaps, but he outthinks his opponents, too). Even so, and at risk of seeming sentimental amid the rousing action scenes, the film follows the couple’s collaboration on a project that changed the world.
This much is showcased in the news stories attending the film, including interviews with the now 90-year-old Rachel. And when she describes the movie, which was a long time coming, as “accurate”, you might consider what this can mean. The film makes its points emphatically and sometimes predictably, without nuance. But as it deploys episodic scenes and iconic images—Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) putting his arm around Jackie’s shoulders in Cincinnati, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) calling Jackie every name he could think of when the player was at bat—as well as reimagined exchanges that showcase Robinson’s strength and courage—Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) telling Jackie he’d have to have the “guts not to fight back,” or Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) accusing his teammate of “turning this season into a damn sideshow”—to ensure your sympathy for Robinson.
You might think 42 doesn’t need to work so hard to achieve such effect, until you remember that “Accidental Racist” makes a case for displays of racism—in 2013. And then you might think about how art works, how it reinvents reflects, remembers, and also refracts events, how it constructs history and how it undermines it, how it benefits some people and leaves others hoping for another sort of representation, in art and elsewhere. What’s accurate in 42 is its recounting of the personal and all too public struggles endured by the Robinsons, together, as well as its comprehension of how looking—at sports, at art, at events, and at yourself amid all this—helps to shape history. If Rickey, Jackie, and Rachel all knew this then, the movie reminds you of it now.
I was reminded too of my father, Bernie Fuchs, whose memories of Jackie Robinson shaped his past and present as well as mine. Just 14 or 15 years old the year that Robinson came to the Dodgers, my dad, once a skinny Little League infielder like the players he loved, was moved to root for him, along with another favorite player, Pee Wee Reese. As the team made its way through Robinson’s rookie season and beyond, my dad paid his own sort of price for his support of a black ballplayer, being a kid in the Midwest, living in his the house of his grandfather, a man who made no secret of his racism because, in 1947, he didn’t have to.
In living and thinking through that experience over many years, my dad became a man very different from his grandfather. Years later, when he was a professional illustrator living on the east coast and still a Dodgers fan though they had moved to LA, he was, in 1983, hired by Sports Illustrated to illustrate a story on Robinson, eight paintings, a job he loved doing, a job for which he was grateful. Included among these images of Robinson was one of Rachel, and when, years later, my dad was able to present two paintings to her, she was moved beyond words, as was my father. When he told this story, it was always with humility and gratitude that he had the chance to meet Rachel, to share with her memories of a game in St. Louis they both attended, the specific plays they loved and the moment when Jackie, following the Dodgers’ win, threw his cap so high into the air that it seemed he might never be able to catch it.
The story of my father and Jackie Robinson suffused my childhood. It informed my admiration for both of these artists, both men representing history in their own ways, as their stories, separate and intertwined, seem always to be part of my emotional and moral fabric, my way of looking at the world. From the 1940 through today, Rachel Robinson has been able to look at the world in a way that is transformational, that posits hope and enacts change, that accounts for how she might be looked at, how she and her husband might inspire, and how they also might have to absorb abuse in order to inspire. When Jackie leaves her to go to work, in the movie, he insists that she will be with him: “You’re in my heart,” he says, and they share a deeply intimate and utterly comprehensible exchange of looks. The movie 42 brings all this back to me in a rush, the Robinsons’ story and my father’s too. That Rachel has been so vigilant about supporting representing her husband’s work, that she has forged her own path—as a mother and a nurse and head of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, as well as a caretaker of his legacy—makes Rachel Robinson heroic in all the ways that women in history can be, in ways that are sometimes forgotten and in ways that are also revered. That Rachel Robinson sees this movie as “accurate”, in the many ways that can mean, reframes 42 for me. Looking at the movie, looking at her, looking at Jackie and my father too, I’m grateful for all of it.