Sports films exist for many different reasons throughout the history of film. Sometimes they are about rising to the top and personal acceptance (Rocky, Rudy). Sometimes they are about friendship (Brian's Song, Take Me Out to the Ballgame). Sometimes are they about inner emotional turmoil (Raging Bull, Hoosiers, Blue Chips) and sometimes they are about beating social constraints (Invictus, A League of Their Own). This film is all of that and more. There is the story of one of greatest ballplayers of the 20th century, Jackie Robinson. He also happens to be the first African-American ballplayer to be integrated into the Major League (since 1880), which were completely comprised of Caucasians at the time. This was the first step in what would become huge change in America. Robinson's story here is actually not the first time this was all put to the silver screen. Jackie Robinson himself would star in a biographical film (one of the only autobiographical films ever produced actually) in 1950 called The Jackie Robinson Story.
This film, by Brian Helgeland (writer of Mystic River, director of Payback) details the excruciatingly painful series of events that Mr. Robinson and his wife, Rachel, had to endure as he worked from the Negro Leagues, to the Minors, to the historic signing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 and to his rookie season playing for the Dodgers in 1947. Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson with patience and uncompromising bravery. A man that did not want to get caught up in a fight outside of the beauty of the game. The game of baseball was the true fight—to prove that a Black man could play baseball and be good at it. Robinson was generally known for being a batter, but learned to play first base and second base throughout his career. He had worked diligently to be a better athlete as much as possible. In many ways, Robinson was not in it to prove anything to society or his fellow teammates. He was just a man who loved baseball. Another man who this same love of baseball was Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey. He was practically the only person in major league baseball at the time who believed that it did not matter what a man's skin pigment presupposed him to be. He, too, only wanted to see good ballplayers on the field. Harrison Ford creates one of his greatest characterizations of his career playing Rickey. He plays him with the ferocious, cautionary complexities of a lion while maintaining a strong sense of friendship and compassion toward Jackie Robinson.
Without a doubt, this picture is a 'buddy film' consisting of two men that set out to show what they can really be. One of the best scenes of the film features Robinson and Rickey conversing as to why it is so important for Rickey to believe in Robinson, specifically. It is one of the only times in the entire film where Rickey lets his guard down and briefly tells the story of an unnamed African-American catcher who was on the Ohio Wesleyan baseball team when Rickey was coach. This is a true account that is hinted at by Rickey in the film. This man was Charles “Tommy” Thomas, a great catcher, who encountered persecution and injustice wherever his team traveled. One day, Rickey encountered Thomas in his room, sobbing and rubbing his hands and crying out, “Black skin. Black skin. If only I could make them, white.” Rickey consoled Thomas by stating, “Come on, Tommy, snap out of it, buck up!” he said. “We’ll lick this one day, but we can’t if you feel sorry for yourself.” This event would haunt Rickey for the next 40 years. “I vowed that I would always do whatever I could to see that other Americans did not have to face the bitter humiliation that was heaped upon Charles Thomas,” he told the Associated Press at the time. The collaboration between Boseman and Ford is phenomenal like a father being there for a son. Branch Rickey, at times, seems to magically appear when Jackie Robinson really needs him to be as if the teacher always appeared when the student was in trouble. The photography of the game sequences is a beautiful recreation of legendary games played by the Brooklyn Dodgers as well some of the terrifying scenarios between the plays of brutal racism from other players, competing teams, police officers and even other team executives.
The film leaves us with an enduring piece of trivia that the number 42 is the only player number in all of baseball that has been retired in tribute to Jackie Robinson. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, which is also commonly known today as the Jackie Robinson Award. In honorable tradition to Robinson, on April 12th, every baseball player dons the number 42. Deservedly so, Brian Helgeland's 42 is a lovely companion piece to The Jackie Robinson Story as it turns out. More importantly, this film serves as a tribute to two heroes that changed the way America thought of the game of baseball.