In a scene early in the movie 42, director Brian Helgeland’s fawning biopic of the great Jackie Robinson, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, (played by Harrison Ford) delivers the film’s message with the subtlety of a waist-high fastball.As Rickey pointedly outlined his plan to have Robinson break the color barrier in major league baseball, the pioneering executive said he was not seeking a player bold enough to make his mark with ready fists.“No,” Rickey corrected, “I need a player with the courage not to fight back.”I’m not old enough to have seen Robinson play. But I do remember my dad taking me, as a young kid, to Double-A Southern Association games, where a faded sign in the distant center-field bleachers announced, “Colored.”Bigotry and intolerance accompany almost every scene in 42, yet Robinson, played brilliantly by Chadwick Boseman, heroically (and mostly silently) endures it all.The film’s musical score soars like some biblical epic. If Robinson has any human faults, you won’t find them here.When he enters the Brooklyn clubhouse for his first game, for example, Jackie turns his flannel jersey around to reveal his immortal number “42,” and it’s like the cinema scenes where we see Superman’s “S” or Batman’s mask for the first times.I found myself enjoying 42, however, far more than I thought I would. Helgeland wisely stayed away from trying to make Hollywood extras look like the 1947 Dodgers and Phillies. Ford reverently captures the legendary Rickey. The computer graphics-recreated Ebbets Field will take old Brooklyn fans’ breaths away.Thank goodness, I found myself saying, that director Spike Lee didn’t make this film, as he planned for so long.Lee, as is his style, likely would have made Robinson a combative provocateur rather than a courageous historical figure.But there was no need to embellish the Robinson persona. The slurs and racial insensitivities shown in Helgeland’s film tell Robinson’s story in ways that should make an audience wince.Yes, kids, that’s the way people were in those days. Baseball and Jackie Robinson helped to change that.There are lessons in 42 for all ages and races. Baseball worries these days about the dwindling number of African-American teenagers who aren’t playing the game.Raised in a Madden Football society, they may well believe that Michael Jordan invented basketball and that Ray Lewis created the pregame introduction.Hopefully, Robinson’s story will be an inspiration. It’s a story not just of sports history, but also social history.As I said, I never got to see Robinson play. But I did see Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr., play in person, and Jackie Robinson played a pivotal role in that.The lessons of 42 include Fort Worth’s own Bobby Bragan, who passed away three years ago. Bragan is depicted in the movie as being one of several ’47 Dodgers who signed a petition not to play if Robinson was added to the team.Later, after seeing the abuse that Robinson has had to endure, Bragan is shown in Rickey’s office, rescinding his request to be traded.“The world’s changing,” Bragan explains.It’s a Hollywood-scripted scene, but it accurately reflects Bragan’s own retelling of his relationship with his old Brooklyn teammate.I wish Bobby could have seen 42. I’m guessing he would have talked about it for hours.Even if you think you know the Jackie Robinson story, the movie will make you think about it. And cringe at what he went through. And marvel at the unique man he was.When Robinson’s widow, Rachel, saw the movie in Los Angeles, she reportedly cried at how lovingly it was done.It’s hard to argue with a movie review like that.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton