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"42"
(2013) (Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A 26-year-old becomes the first black man in major league baseball and must contend with the racial and societal repercussions from that.
PLOT:
It's 1945 and Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey (HARRISON FORD) has come up with what most would consider a radical idea. And that's to be the first major league baseball team to integrate a black player into its organization.

He's set his sights on Jackie Robinson (CHADWICK BOSEMAN), a 26-year-old ballplayer in the Negro leagues playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. Branch has selected him not because he's the best player, but because he believes Jackie can withstand the racial hatred that will come his way. Not known for keeping his mouth shut when it comes to such matters, Jackie agrees to the offer, something that concerns his new bride, Rachel (NICOLE BEHARIE), who's from California and never experienced the segregated South.

Jackie initially plays for the Dodgers' AAA farm team, the Montreal Royals, and his arrival there is covered by Wendell Smith (ANDRE HOLLAND), a sportswriter for the Pittsburg Courier. As a fellow black man who can't sit in the press box due to the color of his skin, he tries to prepare Jackie for the questions, abuse and even threats that will come his way.

But Jackie prevails and impresses everyone enough for Branch to bring him up to the big leagues, entrusting manager Leo Durocher (CHRISTOPHER MELONI) to make Jackie's white teammates, such as Dixie Walker (RYAN MERRIMAN) and Pee Wee Reese (LUCAS BLACK) among others, to accept him.

While that has mixed results, Jackie must contend with racism that follows him everywhere he and the team go, be that at hotels that will no longer lodge the players due to his presence; white fans at ball games who boo him; and even Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (ALAN TUDYK) who repeatedly slings racial epithets at Jackie while at bat. Biting his tongue and letting his actions on the field speak for him, Jackie perseveres in his first season, a pivotal one for him, baseball and the country.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I grew up in Richmond, VA from the mid 1960s through the early '80s, so I'm quite familiar with racism, and that's coming from a white boy. Granted, I didn't witness firsthand any white on black violence or other physical abuse, and only heard the occasional, person on person racial slurs. I certainly didn't see any of the "whites only" and "coloreds only" segregation signs that became synonymous with the South of that era.

I do, however, remember watching a horror movie with a white friend at his house when his parents walked in and wondered how we could find that scary when there was a world outside filled with "n*ggers." And back when Hank Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth as the home run king of major league baseball, a bunch of white kids were aghast that a black player was going to "take" the record from a white one who was certainly spinning in his grave at the notion.

Hammerin' Hank had it relatively easy, though, compared to his predecessor who blazed a trail of integrating professional baseball. And that player was none other than Jackie Robinson who's story, or at least part of it, is being told once again in the sports drama "42." So named for the number of his uniform that was retired from any further use by any other players, the tale isn't the first to feature Robinson.

After all, the real life man actually played himself -- three years after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him -- in the 1950 movie "The Jackie Robinson Story." That film was more of a standard biopic starting in Robinson's childhood and then progressing through him growing up, being a multi-sport star at UCLA, serving in the military, playing in the Negro baseball league and finally playing for the Dodgers, winning the pennant, and concluding with him addressing the United States House of Representatives.

In this latest iteration of his tale, writer/director Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential," "Mystic River") has pared down the material to cover just part of the years between 1945 and 1947. After a brief introductory bit summarizing the racism and segregation that still existed in America following WWII, the filmmaker sets off to tell the tale of the Dodgers president and general manager (a fun and rascally Harrison Ford) deciding he's going to be the first to integrate major league baseball by signing Robinson (a believable and engaging Chadwick Boseman).

He's specifically looking for a black player who has the guts not to fight back against the inevitable hatred that will spew his way, and despite a track record of openly speaking his mind about such matters (including getting court-martialed over refusing to sit on the back of a military bus), Robinson agrees. What follows is a trip down south for spring training that introduces him and his wife (Nicole Beharie) to lots of racial animosity but also a black sportswriter (Andre Holland) who also knows what it's like trying to work in a white man's world.

While the film doesn't tread or break any new ground in such historical or thematic regards, never digs too deep into the related thematic material, and may possess -- for the tastes of some -- too much awe and old-fashioned reverence along the lines of what permeated Robert Redford and Barry Levinson's "The Natural", I enjoyed the film from start to finish and found it to be a rousing and motivational piece of filmmaking.

Of course, much of that stems from the performances. Boseman, who bears a resemblance to the icon he plays, is engaging in the lead role and comes off believable both on and off the field. While we only gets brief glimpses into what makes him tick (and some of those are a bit too on the nose), the young performer easily creates a sympathetic character for which one must simply cheer. And his chemistry with Beharie is spot on and terrific for the film's moments of downtime and more personal intimacy.

I imagine viewers and especially critics will be torn about Ford's performance. I'll admit that it occasionally feels like it's balancing precariously above the chasm of caricature, but some of that could be due to the actor performing in a way mostly unlike anything he's done before. Yet, he's playing such a passionate and committed character (and otherwise does a fine job doing so) that you can't help but like him. Depending on how things play out over the rest of the year, it's an outside shot he could get some supporting actor award love from voters.

Supporting performances from the likes of Holland, Lucas Black (playing the Dodgers' shortstop), Christopher Meloni (as the team's charismatic but flawed manager) and even John C. McGinley (as the legendary play-by-play sportscaster and witty wordsmith Red Barber) are all good, while Alan Tudyk is convincing as an opposing team's manger and just one of many examples of the racial vitriol Robinson faced.

Although the pic may commit a few minor errors here and there during its just-over two hour runtime and might not hit a grand slam in terms of portraying the man, his legend and the sign of the times in which he lived and played, I found the movie engrossing, uplifting and entertaining throughout. "42" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed April 8, 2013 / Posted April 12, 2013


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