A new generation of Americans is about to discover the man who broke major league baseball’s color barrier: Before Rosa Parks, Freedom Riders, and Martin Luther King Jr., there was Jackie Robinson.
The new Warner Bros. film 42 stars Chadwick Boseman (The Express) as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the iconic Los Angeles Dodgers general manager who selected Robinson from among the many talented Negro League players in 1946. “He’s a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong,” Rickey says in one of the opening scenes.
Rickey’s early proclamation sets up a key theme throughout: the role of faith for both men. Rickey and Robinson were devout Christians, and 42 doesn’t diminish that fact. Academy Award–winning writer and director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) said illustrating their faith wasn’t an accident—nor was it exaggerated. Robinson “felt like he was destined for this role—that God had picked him to go out and do this,” Helgeland told me. “That belief gave him a lot of strength to get through it all.”
Helgeland shows Robinson pausing to pray before walking onto the field with the Dodgers for the first time, but he had to cut an expensive nighttime train scene showing Robinson praying for strength. “He prayed on his knees every night before he went to bed,” Helgeland said.
Helgeland based as much as possible on actual events of Robinson’s life in 1946 and ’47—a goal Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, helped him achieve. Rachel Robinson, 90, owns the rights to her late husband’s story, so she had to approve the story and script. She visited the set while the movie was in production and was very particular about making sure the story was told the right way.
The movie doesn’t explain how Robinson used Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” teaching from the Sermon on the Mount to combat racism, but viewers will see the evidence of it: Many scenes illustrate the verbal assaults, threats, and blatant prejudice Robinson endured in segregated American society. Robinson experienced it all with Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who was the only player’s wife allowed to travel with the team, although the two had to find separate lodging apart from the white players.
The story creates a dynamic portrayal of marriage and family that is rarely seen in Hollywood, especially from the African-American perspective (where 72 percent of children are now born out of wedlock). Bozeman said partway through filming the movie he realized he had “never seen a black love story in a major motion picture. You’ve seen Denzel [Washington] with a wife, but not a love story.”
Ford is outstanding in his historical role of Branch Rickey, which represents a significant departure from his famous fictional roles in Air Force One, Indiana Jones, and the original Star Wars. Ford said he studied Rickey’s voice and appearance while undergoing significant physical alterations to fit the character of a plump man in the 1940s. He said he realized early on that the movie would be “much better served by a Branch Rickey look-alike and not a Harrison Ford look-alike.”
The movie has a PG-13 rating for mild language (including racial slurs) and thematic elements, but it has no sexually explicit material. Unlike many sports movies, 42 boasts believable athletic performances from Bozeman and other players, many of whom were recruited from Division I college baseball teams. The film follows Robinson through the 1947 season, his only one as a first baseman and the first of six pennant-winning seasons in 10 years with the Dodgers.
Robinson’s heroic actions—on and off the field—amid a racially divided country are quickly becoming a distant memory four decades after his death, but 42 brings his Hall of Fame story back to life in a film that should go down as one of the greatest baseball movies of all time.