A Man for the Times
By Carl Kozlowski
Many rightly credit The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, activist and defiant bus rider Rosa Parks and other well-known civil rights icons of the 1940s and ’50s with turning the tide in the fight for racial equality.
The film 42, the story of Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, offers a stirring reminder of another man, this one from Pasadena, who stood alongside those giants while leading with excellence and grace in his own struggle against racism in another walk of American life—professional sports.
“Just imagine you’re trying to play a game, and it’s hard enough to play, but I just can’t imagine having death threats and taunts from the stands on top of it,” says Dodgers historian Mark Langill of how Robinson was greeted by some fans and fellow players as the first African-American player in 1947.
“It’s amazing he kept it together for the team, the sport and for the country,” said Langill, a former sports writer with the Pasadena Star-News. “There was a lot riding on that person, and history shows they chose the right person.”
Hitting the nation’s movie theaters this weekend, 42’s depiction of Robinson’s life leaves out him growing up in Northwest Pasadena and going on to outstanding athletic careers at both John Muir High School and Pasadena City College, which Jackie and his older brother, Olympic silver medalist Mack Robinson, attended before Jackie matriculated to UCLA. The film focuses primarily on the years 1946 and ’47, and its title is Robinson’s number, which has been retired from use in Major League Baseball.
The diligence used in depicting details of Robinson’s life has impressed one key family member. Delano Robinson was married to Mack, who came in second to only Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin and whose accomplishments have been honored several times in Pasadena. She believes the film has come along at a time in which today’s African-American youth need a reminder of how things used to be.
“Hopefully, [today’s kids] will learn discipline from how Jackie carried himself, how he held himself and turned the other cheek the way [then-Dodgers President] Branch Rickey told him to,” says Delano Robinson in a recent phone interview prior to attending the movie’s premiere. “Young African-American athletes making millions today owe everything to Jackie.”
It was Rickey who decided to stand up to Major League Baseball’s racial segregation practice and hire the first black player—no matter the risk to the then-Brooklyn-based ball club’s receipts and reputation. While Robinson was a highly talented athlete who quickly impressed at both the plate and in the field, he was selected above better Negro League players, primarily because he had displayed outstanding character in the military and other aspects of his life.
This isn’t the first movie to depict Jackie’s life and accomplishments. In fact, in 1950 he played himself in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, surrounded by a cast of actors, including Ruby Dee, as Jackie’s wife, Rachel. But in that highly racially charged era, the movie’s depictions of racial prejudice were handled far more delicately than the often shocking ways they are portrayed in 42.
“I think it’s important to remember that normally when someone signs a pro contract, it’s the beginning of a dream, of life in the majors. But when Jackie signed, he was putting his life on the line,” says Langill, who notes that the 1950 film is widely available on DVD.
For 42, Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential) assumed writing and directing duties as he strove to bring this dream project to the screen. While he signed Harrison Ford to play Rickey, resulting in a performance that should easily earn Ford an Oscar nomination, Helgeland sought a fresh face to play Robinson, turning to relative unknown, 31-year-old Chadwick Boseman, whose starring turn marks only his third feature film.
“You could never invent this story,” says Helgeland. “You could write all the superhero movies in the world and still never come close to the truth.”
He needed someone who could physically pull it off, “and I didn’t want a really well-known actor to play Jackie because then it’s hard to suspend your disbelief,” he said. “Chadwick was the second actor we auditioned, and he chose the toughest scene of the four we offered actors to try out with.”
What Boseman chose turned out to be the movie’s most powerful scene, a heartbreaking depiction of Robinson finally breaking down privately in a dugout tunnel and venting his anger by beating a baseball bat against the wall while screaming in frustration. Boseman smacked a chair with a wiffle ball bat in his audition, a bold move that convinced Helgeland that he’d found his man.
“He went for it, and within 30 seconds he put himself in the position of being rejected or seen as brave,” Helgeland recalls. “He was playing a brave man, and that’s all I needed to know about him. He had it intellectually, emotionally and physically, so it was a blessing when he walked in the door.”
Before moving ahead, Helgeland needed to gain the approval of Jackie’s still-vibrant widow, 90-year-old Rachel, who has protected her husband’s legacy since his death in 1972 at age 53. Since Rachel held the rights to Jackie’s life story, Helgeland had to consult with her about her concerns with his script.
Helgeland said Rachel wanted to provide a broader scope of Jackie’s life than the era depicted in 42, showing Jackie’s life both before and after baseball in addition to his playing career. In the end, Helgeland convinced her to keep the film narrowly focused on 1946 and ’47 because, as he puts it, “the passage of time in a movie is the enemy of drama.”
In the end, all the effort paid off, with the richly detailed film taking viewers back into an era filled with both the horrors of racial prejudice and the hope of overcoming it. Of course, it’s a must-see for baseball fans, but there is something everyone should see as we contemplate where we’ve been and still need to be when it comes to equal rights.
“Jackie was an inspiration to kids of all races at that time, and I think he still is that,” says Boseman. “I had friends who went to pre-screenings and had sons and daughters who left practicing their swings. Jackie was a legend, a Pasadena sports legend and a national legend. It probably would have happened anyway with someone else, but maybe it would have taken 10 or 20 years. Someone had to, but thank God it was someone who could handle the politics, demeanor and social responsibility.”