We often associate the Civil Rights Movement in the United States with events such as the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott of the 1950's, and the marches on Washington D.C. of Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960's. However, ten years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in the segregated south, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers had to endure the kind of abuse and cruelty most of us today regard as vicious, unconscionable, and even unforgivable. The heroism of Robinson is summed up by the film "42" which is also credits the man who decided to allow the first African-American baseball player to don a uniform of a team in the White Major Leagues, Branch Ricky. (The so-called Negro Leagues were as professional and quite profitable prior to Robinson's crossing the racial barrier.)
In the words of George Will as stated in Ken Burns' documentary "Baseball" Jackie Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman in an academy-award caliber performance, was the first heroic figure of what will become the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Robinson, according to Will, was nearly as important to the movement as Dr. King. This outstanding biopic chronicles the man who challenged current status quo while playing highly competitive athletic competitions amidst jibes, curses, and epithets. To understand what Robinson endured and still be able to compete in professional baseball at the highest levels, is no less than an extraordinary achievement in the human drama of any age of history, according to Wills.
The story is presented from three perspectives: mostly from Jackie Robinson's eyes, occasionally from his wife's (played by Nicole Beharie), and from the perspective of the man who made the controversial move, Branch Rickie, played by Harrison Ford in possibly the finest performance of his career. (My hope is both Boseman and Ford will be nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars, respectively.) According to the film, Robinson had two gifts, his ability as an outstanding athlete by any standard, and his ability to take the blows of hatred without retaliation. In Ricky's words, Robinson had to be man enough and big enough to turn the other cheek, as Gandhi did in South Africa and India, and as Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights protesters did shortly thereafter.
On one level the film is a triumph of the human spirit but also a sobering indictment of what America had been prior to the Civil Rights Movement: a racially intolerant nation. Some of the most heroic moments are when Robinson is the target of such vitriolic abuse that he nearly breaks down but finds the courage to rise and take the field again amidst the mockery of opponents and spectators. Nearly as compelling are when his teammates begin to stand up for him and point out the cowardice of his abusers. Even Branch Ricky in one memorable scene, acknowledges that he doesn't know the pain of the abuse thrown at Robinson, and he supports Robinson as if they are both enduring these tests of character together to some degree. In a poignant moment, Ricky reveals why he made the first step towards integrating White Major League Baseball. "42" is without question the best offering in film thus far in 2013. Hopefully, the Academy of Motion Pictures will bring deserved nominations to all the leads, and hopefully the film will garner a few wins. Robinson deserves another home run because he made American Baseball truly the "national" pastime rather than the segregated sport it had been.