When 42, a full-on studio biopic of Jackie Robinson, finally arrived in 2013 — 10 years ago last week — it marked the end of a very long wait. While the real Robinson had starred in a 1950 biopic called The Jackie Robinson Story, there had been many years of efforts to make a new, modern-day version of the story of Robinson. As the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color line, and emerged as a superstar player on top of that, Robinson should go down as the most important athlete in the history of Major League Baseball.
Spike Lee attempted to get a Robinson film off the ground — which would have starred Denzel Washington — as did Robert Redford and others. The movie was finally made by writer/director Brian Helgeland, with a then little-known Chadwick Boseman cast as Robinson.
42 is a very good film, that lends Robinson’s story the gravity it likely deserves. Boseman is outstanding in it, and that he died at a too-young age, just as Robinson himself did, adds an additional layer of poignancy. But for some reason, 42 feels a little too small. I would have loved to have seen the version Spike Lee never got to make.
The film takes place over the course of the 1947 season, Robinson’s first with the Brooklyn Dodgers. General manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, at the start of his run of old-man roles) decides to integrate his team, by adding Robinson.
This is met with resistance, by opponents, by some Southern teammates; Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman even hurls slurs at him during a game. Throughout, Robinson is encouraged to turn the other cheek, and let his on-field play do the talking.
The film features the oft-told moment of the Southern white teammate (Lucas Black) putting his arm around Robinson in Cincinnati. This is a great movie moment, even though baseball historians generally agree that it’s more of an urban legend than something that really happened, at least the way it happened in the movie.
It’s one of quite a few glaring historical inaccuracies in the film.
Once again, the movie is fine as it is, but it could have been better, and more epic. I would love to see this story explored by a top-tier filmmaker, where Lee or someone else, although a second biopic is unlikely, at least in the near future.
I would also love to see a many-part fictionalized miniseries about Robinson’s entire career and life, not merely his rookie season. It could cover his Army and UCLA days, and his team in the Negro Leagues, leading up to his call-up to the Dodgers. Then, the different Dodgers seasons, including the championship in 1955, and his decision to retire rather than go to the rival Giants.
Do it with actors, or as an O.J.: Made in America-style documentary, complete with every major living MLB or Negro Leagues historian as talking heads.