April 17 2013 12:00 AM

Jackie Robinson biopic a powerful, bittersweet victory


The first time we see Jackie Robinson in the biopic “42,” he’s in silhouette, crouched like a tiger, leading off about 10 feet from first base at a Negro League night game. The pitcher winds up, throws one over the plate, and Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) breaks into a loping sprint. Five, six seven strides and he slides, easily stealing second base. Then he pops up, drops instantly into his crouch again, and hungrily eyes third — all the while taunting the catcher with a mischievous gleam. It’s a mesmerizing introduction to the 20th century’s most revolutionary American athlete. 

Robinson was, of course, the first black athlete to break into the major leagues, nearly 20 years before the Civil Rights movement legally elevated him above second-class citizenry. The film focuses on the two-year span that introduced him first to the farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers and then his tumultuous first year in the majors. 

“42” is, perhaps, a tad too earnest, but it can’t really afford to be anything less. The heaping, blatantly public racist jeering that Robinson endured certainly put him in a class by himself, and to either play down the abuse he suffered or the decorum with which he maintained his poise would be a disservice to both the man and the movie. Boseman subtly conveys Robinson’s pain of being repeatedly called a “nigger” by the opposing teams and the crowds, making it feel like a physical blow each time the epithet is spat at him. But he keeps his chin high, his shoulders squared and his eyes dry — at least in public. 

Great performances abound. To portray legendary Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who single-handedly desegregated Major League Baseball by bringing Robinson on board, Harrison Ford undergoes an almost unrecognizable career reinvention. Long gone are the ego and swagger of his most iconic roles. In its stead is a blustery, bespectacled old fogey who sounds like he doesn’t even bother to pour milk over his breakfast gravel. Ford imbues Rickey with a playful shrewdness that’s fun to watch. It is a return to form for the Oscar-nominated actor. 

But this is Boseman’s movie, and he absolutely owns it. As a fresh face (this is his first starring role), he’s the perfect blank slate to physically become Robinson — and what a way to launch a career. He instills Robinson with an otherworldly dignity and grace that makes you understand why he — and perhaps only he —could have been the one to successfully break into the game. He gives Robinson a pride that doesn’t belie the gravity of what he’s doing or the danger he’s inherently in. In “42,” you see the true meaning of “turn the other cheek,” and it’s a bittersweet thing to behold. 

What elevates “42” above a by-the-numbers biopic is the time and care it takes to create its world. Yes, it’s a period piece, but it feels neither quaint nor antiquated. The baseball scenes feel like an organic part of the story, with the outcomes of particular games taking a backseat to iconic moments within the game: the first hit, the first home run, the excruciatingly belabored verbal abuse. 

This is history, boys and girls — not just for sports, but for American equality. Extrapolate away and you get black presidents, women in combat and gay marriage. In “42,” it shows you just how high the stakes were — and continue to be, for some.