When I was a kid Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were history, I read about them in books. But my baseball heroes were Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, to me they were always just baseball players, their being black wasn't a factor in either my liking or disliking of them, and "42" brings home the truly heroic effort and forces Jackie Robinson had to overcome.
"Sports movies" are best when they're a metaphor for other areas of our lives. "Field of Dreams" isn't really about baseball, "Rocky" isn't really about boxing, and "Hoosiers" really isn't about basketball. What those movies speak to are other forces in our lives that hopefully bring out the best in us, and while "42" isn't metaphorical it speaks directly to our views of race and racism.
"42" takes place between 1946 and 1948 when Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) brought Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to the Brooklyn Dodgers and integrated baseball. The plot is as simple as that, the story isn't. Robinson was virtually alone, Martin Luther King Jr was still a high school student, Rosa Parks hadn't yet refused to sit at the back of the bus (although Robinson had and was court-martialed for it in the military), those who believed in him were his wife Rachael (Nicole Beharie) and Rickey. Robinson didn't even have the backing of his teammates who started a petition refusing to play with Robinson, slowly Robinson won over their respect. The way Robinson won over their respect, besides being a great ballplayer was to smile while epithets and threats were hurled at him, to get back up after players on opposing teams purposefully injured him. Robinson is a man with a temper but he knows history is watching and whether the integration of baseball happens or not rests on how he acts, and in public he was a tower of strength and "42" is brave enough to show Robinson's private moment of doubt and wanting to strike back at his attackers.
The cast and acting of "42" is superb, Chadwick Boseman resembles Robinson so much the only thing better would have been Robinson playing himself. Boseman exudes Robinson's strength smiling in the face of those who don't want him in baseball while showing the pain that lies just under Robinson's surface. Ford's Branch Rickey is a hero apart from the characters of overt action Ford has played in the past and Ford summon's Rickey's unshakeable faith in the integration of baseball because of his sense of what is right and his religious views make Rickey a pillar against which the waves of racism wash against and try to erode but ultimately fail. It may be to early in the year but this may be a Oscar worthy performance for Ford. Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson is Jackie's pillar of strength, it's a clichéd role but it is no way clichéd or rote acting, Beharie conveys the tender support Rachel Robinson did for Jackie and as she still does carrying on his legacy. Christopher Meloni is great as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and he brings the menace and ultimate authority that Durocher had as a manager, it's a shame history took Durocher out of the game so early in Robinson's story Meloni steals the screen in his scenes. As Durocher's replacement Max Gail plays Burt Shooten, the position and character are place holders in history and the movie, but it's kind of cool to see Max Gail in a film.
Today all sports and teams are integrated, all races participate in all sports, we don't even think of it as integration any more, it's just the fact that if you rise to a certain level of achievment you can play professional sports no matter your ethnic background or heritage. There are also reminders for us that "42" isn't dead history, throughout the movie we hear the rejoinder of "this isn't the America I know" echoes of which we've heard in our recent past. "42" even offers a choice, when the Dodgers play in Cincinnati we see a father and son in the stands, the father relating seeing his baseball hero Honus Wagner as a kid, a touching moment that has probably been repeated millions of times in the 100 year plus history of professional baseball. That is why "42" is a special movie that reminds of us a time that wasn't so long ago (well within the confines of a life time) and how we got to where we are, it's a history to remember and not let the forces of ignorance and hate take us backwards.