Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’
sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are
you when people revile you and persecute you and utter
all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone
strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…
Matthew 5:10, 11 & 39
It has been 63 years since The Jackie Robinson Story was released, so 42, the new one about the great baseball player, named after the number on his Brooklyn Dodger jersey, is as welcome as the daffodils now popping up. The old black and white version, in which Jackie Robinson played himself, covered most of his life, beginning in 1928 when the child was given his first tattered mitt by white strangers who admired the boy’s fielding skill. 42 covers just the years 1945-47, the beginning of Jackie’s great career in professional baseball, whereas the first one shows us a little of Jackie’s collegiate career in which he performed outstandingly in track, basket ball, and football, and baseball—indeed, the latter was not then his favorite sport—as well as his experience playing ball in the Negro League. Given its more limited time span, the new film, starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, can devote more screen time to some intimate moments, which it ably does.
In the first film there is no Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), the black sportswriter who brought Jackie to the attention of the Dodgers. In the new version his inclusion reveals all the more how pervasive was racism in the 1940’s. When Jackie is feeling discouraged by the racial hatred directed at him, Wendell asks rhetorically why he sits in the stands with his typewriter in his lap, and answers that it is because African Americans are not allowed in the press box. Then there is a moving moment when a white father sits with his young son and starts yelling insults at Jackie as the ballplayer takes the field. Puzzled for a moment as he sees his father spewing forth hatred, the boy then joins in—and some of us in the audience start hearing in our minds the old Rogers & Hammerstein South Pacific song, “You’ve Got to Be Taught.” Fortunately there is a countervailing moment—shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), made aware by Branch Rickey of all the hate mail that Jackie has received, decides to show publically his support for his teammate (unlike those who circulated a petition demanding Jackie’s removal from the team) by walking over, putting his arm around Jackie’s shoulder and standing there for several minutes until the umpire ordered them to “play ball.” Another touching moment was when at the beginning of a game everyone is standing as the National Anthem is sung. Instead of just a portion being sung, as is the usual case in films, the entire first verse is included. The camera moves slowly along the row of Dodgers waiting to play ball, and as the concluding phrase rings out “and the home of the brave” the head and shoulders of Jackie fill the screen. Just how brave he is we see time after time when fans jeer and taunt him, the worst incident being the attempt to rattle him while at bat by the vicious Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). Jackie is so upset that, a short time later he goes into the hallway out of everyone’s sight and smashes his bat to pieces against the wall. Brach Rickey comes to console him, fulfilling at that moment the role of the father that the abandoned Jackie had never had in his life.
Both films show well the fatherly role that Branch Rickey played in Jackie’s life, beginning with that first historic meeting in the Dodgers’ office. Perhaps even more than Robinson, Rickey knew the waves of intense hatred that the first “Negro” to break the sports color ban would engender. In both re-enactments of this scene Rickey makes reference to the Sermon on the Mount in his counsel to his new player. Interestingly, in the moder version, set in today’s more secular society, more of the Dodger manager’s deep faith is included (though in the older version the undecided Jackie, at the advice of his mother, whom he telephones back in California as soon as he is invited to join the Dodgers, goes and talks over his decision with a minister).
I love the exchange that underlines the courage of being nonviolent when Jackie reacts to Rickey’s statement “Your enemy will be out in force. But you cannot meet him on his own low ground.” Jackie: “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back? “ Rickey: “No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.” Robinson:” You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back. I’ll give you the guts.” And how indeed he kept that promise!
The whole-hearted support of Jackie’s girl Rachel (Nicole Beharie) is well depicted, she at first joining Jackie during the team’s (the farm team The Montreal Royals) spring practice in the segregated South. It is her fierce independence that makes them late in arriving at the Florida training camp. Raised in California, she is appalled at the “Whites” sign on the restroom door at the New Orleans airport. Jackie is worried when she defiantly enters the bathroom anyway. The woman at the check in counter also sees her and removes them from the passenger list, telling them that the plane’s load had to be lightened in order to take off safely. Her lie is revealed when the white stand-by couple is allowed to board in the Robinsons’ place. Interestingly, in the older film it is Rachel, not Jackie, who insists that they be married as soon as he is signed to the Dodgers. She tells him that she wants to stand by him during the ordeal to come. It is a wise decision, Jackie needing all the support he can muster to survive the ordeal.
Director/writer Brian Helgeland’s film is a thrilling testimony to courage and the power of a worthy example to change the attitudes of hate-filled opponents. To the church’s shame, it was decisions like Branch Rickey’s courageous signing of a black player (and also President Truman’s executive order integrating the Army) that started the massive change that was to shake our nation to its foundations, rather than the preaching and living out of the gospel among its members. Far too many Christians either embraced the racist values of society, or else regarded any attempt to change “the rules” as the work of troublemakers.
The film is by no means perfect—the music is far too overwhelming at several points, forcing us to feel that this is a Glorious Moment—and Harrison Ford skirts close to the edge of hammy parody in his portrayal of Branch Rickey, until we remember that the Dodger manager was indeed an out-sized character. These are minor quibbles. Like other good baseball movies, the viewer does not have to be a fan to appreciate and applaud what the main characters are going through.
For Reflection & Discussion 1. How does the beginning of the film set up the audience for understanding the societal values and attitudes in the 1940s? What is the irony shown by mentioning the fight for democracy in Europe and the situation to which the returning soldiers will be facing, especially the black ex-GIs?
2. How does Branch Rickey’s decision also make him an outcast? How does this enroll him with the Hebrew prophets?
3. What are his mixed motives? Economic, of course, but what else, as he reveals later in the film? How does his faith apparently enter into his d
ecision? (Interesting that it is the new film that informs us that both he and Jackie were Methodists.)
4. What do you think of Rickey’s statement that Jackie must have the guts “Not to fight back” ? How does this require greater courage? How is this similar to what Gandhi and Martin Luther Kings, Jr. have said about nonviolence? Jackie was not a pacifist (sadly, later in life he supported the Vietnam War and denounced MLK for turning against it), so how must his restraint been all the mre difficult for him?
5. What moments of grace do you see in the film—such as pitcher Ralph Branca’s (Hamish Linklater) invitation to Jackie to join them in the shower. How is this played for humor—that of a possible misunderstanding of his motives? And, of course, Pee Wee Reeces gesture on the field.
6. How does the film show the importance of the support of others in bucking society? Who in your past life has supported you during difficult times in your life? What has this meant to you?
7. What is it that changed people’s attitude toward Jackie? How is this always the case, that pioneers must exhibit excellence in what they do? In one scene it is said that all the racist mistreatment benefits Jackie: how is this case? This arousing of sympathy—how does this demonstrate what Gandhi and Martin Luther King meant when they taught that nonviolence appeals to the conscience within one’s enemy?
8. In the case of the boy to whom the departing Jackie tosses a baseball when he is leaving on a train at the film’s beginning, what does this show about the unknown influence we have on others? (What are we told about that boy at the end of the film?) How are role models important in our development? Who was yours as you grew up: how did she/he influence you?
9. What do you think of the decision of Major League Baseball to retire the number 42 for all teams? And for every player to wear it on April 15th—Jackie Robinson Day? How can this be a fitting way to commemorate not just a man, but also the cause for which he and Branch Rickey gave so much?
10. The church is supposed to be God’s instrument for proclaiming and living his kingdom and living its ethics, and yet what was it in the 1940s that advanced most the cause of racial equality? How does this show that God is not confined to his reluctant believers in working his will in the world? How might this have set the stage for the church, at least the black church and the minority of white liberal believers, for what transpired in the 1950s and 1960s?
Note: The Jackie Robinson Story is available free at The Moving Image Archive at: http://archive.org/details/Jackie_Robinson_Story_The