Margaret Mead is credited with saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Those who gave us the film 42 have provided a reminder of that truism, as they told the story of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey and how, together, they put an end to the “unwritten rule” that kept African-American ballplayers from playing Major League Baseball before 1947.
Let’s get this much out of the way right up front: It’s a very good movie. It was well written. It was well acted. The computer generated images of all of the old ballparks portrayed in the film were pretty amazing, really. The baseball scenes themselves were good, if perhaps not great.
The movie starts out with one of those, “This motion picture is based on a true story,” statements. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s essentially a disclaimer that film makers use at the outset of movies that are about real people or real events, but it really means, “This movie is based on a true story, but not everything said or everything portrayed actually happened. You see, to get a lot of people to spend their money to see this movie, we’ve had to dramatize some things to make the real story more exciting. We hope you understand and maybe even end up believing the scenes in this movie were exactly what really happened.”
As soon as I see the “based on a true story” disclaimer, I resign myself to what’s to come… overly dramatic fictionalized scenes that might have possibly happened, but probably didn’t, to the real people being portrayed.
But in the case of 42 I couldn’t help but come away with a very different sense.
Rather than adding drama to Jackie Robinson’s story, I think the film makers actually sanitized it more than a bit.
Sure, there are scenes depicting Robinson having to deal with Jim Crow laws… being unable to eat, sleep and even go to the toilet in places reserved for “Whites Only.” There are scenes making it clear many of his Dodger team mates didn’t want him on the team to start the 1947 season. There are scenes depicting the kind of racial verbal abuse he had to take from opponents. The movie shows Robinson getting hit by a pitch… once (it happened nine times in his rookie year). There are allusions made to death threats.
But I don’t for a moment believe that the scenes depicting the abuse Robinson and his family received even scratched the surface of what they actually were forced to endure. Maybe the film makers couldn’t go in to all of that in-depth and do so within the limits of a two-hour movie. Then again, had they told the whole story, I’m not sure audiences could have stomached it.
The purpose of the movie was to inspire us… to remind us of what a truly unique and special man Robinson was. Robinson (and Rickey, too, for that matter) certainly warranted us being reminded of the courage it took to break baseball’s color barrier and the role that doing so arguably played in furthering the cause of civil rights in this country.
I haven’t read a single quote from a current professional ballplayer who has seen the movie that hasn’t been highly positive. Most include a reference to the movie reminding them of all that Robinson did to make it possible for today’s players to do what they love to do.
Those are the emotions the film makers wanted to induce in their audiences, no doubt.
The history of racism in our country is, to put it mildly, shameful. Few people alive today remember what it must have been like for Negro League ballplayers before MLB integrated or what it was like for Robinson and others who were on the leading edge of baseball’s integration. Not many today even remember how absurdly people of color were treated in this country in the 1960s… a couple of decades after Jackie first wore a Dodgers uniform.
Few of us remember what Jackie Robinson and those who followed him likely had to deal with. Many of those who do remember, especially those with complexions like mine, often don’t particularly want to be reminded.
So the makers of 42 had to walk a bit of a tightrope. Tell Robinson’s story in a manner that gives him his due… that reminds movie-goers of all ages how courageous he was and how much today’s generations owe to him… that tells the story of the prejudice that he and those that followed him had to overcome, but without dwelling too much in to the horrid details of the underpinnings of that prejudice. They needed to make African-Americans (and all of us, really) proud of Robinson, without making white America too uncomfortable with our own history. In all of this, I believe they succeeded.
So… if you haven’t seen 42 yet, do so. It’s a wonderful movie. Robinson’s story is inspiring and those who made this movie make sure you will leave the theater appropriately inspired. It’s the story of a small group of people, including Robinson and Rickey, who believed there were things being done wrong in this country and set out to try to do something about it.
The movie does a nice job of helping to explain why all of Major League Baseball honors Robinson by retiring his number 42, except for one game every April when every player on every team wears the number on his back.
That’s a nice, symbolic gesture. But we can do better.
Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey made sure they left this world a better place than it was when they entered it. If we truly want to honor Jackie Robinson, we’ll all make sure that someday the same can be said of each of us.