'42' may open the eyes of a new generation

New movie about Jackie Robinson may not be perfect, but it's right on target about race

Somewhere in the middle of watching the movie "42," about Jackie Robinson's historic rookie year breaking baseball's color barrier, I decided something.

I decided that this weekend, I'm taking my sons to see it too.

They're teenage athletes, and they've seen and heard ugly talk on the fields directed at some teammates, but nothing like this:

That scene when Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and his Brooklyn Dodgers are playing Philadelphia, and the racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). Chapman opens up on Robinson, riding him, hurling ugliness upon ugliness, with Robinson about to crack.

But Robinson doesn't crack. The abuse he took without lashing out in return may be unfathomable for modern audiences.

That's a big moment, but there's a small moment in the film that I thought was perhaps the most powerful. It comes after a game in which Robinson was beaned by a fastball. Afterward, he rides a bus with his wife (Nichole Beharie), and she puts her head on his shoulder.

"If they knew you," she said, "they'd be ashamed."

The disclaimer at the beginning of the film says it was "based" on real events, so plenty of license is taken, and I don't know if Robinson's wife really said it that way.

But the sentence, "If they knew you, they'd be ashamed," is the heart of the film to me.

The movie is getting a polite yawn from some critics, and others say it's not gritty enough, and too talky, and that there's not enough baseball. And though I recommend this film, I wish there was more baseball in it too.

But it's a political film. And it should be watched, so that another generation of young people knows the story.

Even now, even with a black man as U.S. president, even after we've bathed ourselves in loud, self-congratulatory waters over Barack Obama's political ascension, young people should see this film.

They should see it if only to get a sense — even if it's a diluted, Hollywood speechy, horns-blowing-during-the-key-at-bat sense — of how things were in this country years ago.

Of course things have changed, not enough for some, but the Robinson story shouldn't be relegated to history books, or abandoned to the ghetto of what we progressively call Black History Month, which relegates African-American heritage to only one month and no more.

"42" isn't a black story. It's an American story. And using skin color to deny someone a chance — especially when they're as good as or better than the competition — is fundamentally anti-American.

Once Americans understood this, civil rights for African-Americans were inevitable. Politicians cast themselves as heroes in their memoirs, but change came when Americans came to this conclusion without politics.

The athletic field is best when merit is judged against merit. And so to deny someone a chance to prove their merit was to deny Americanism.

What burns when you watch "42" must be the same nerves burned in the country in the 1960s, when people were denied a seat at a lunch counter simply because they didn't have the right skin pigment.

But years after Robinson broke the all-white barrier in baseball, skin pigment remains big business. Not in athletics. In politics and government.

It is now a tool used to pick winners and losers. And rather than defuse racial tensions, the modern use of race to select outcomes exacerbates those tensions. It serves politicians well because it drives individuals into controllable tribes that vote for those who promise to use hue — not merit — to confer benefits upon them.

Is it ironic to mention affirmative action in the context of Jackie Robinson being denied a chance to compete? Is it impolite? Just what is safe to talk about, when we talk about race in America?

As to the baseball in the movie, the one thing I wanted to see was Robinson stealing home. But that came after his rookie year. I also hoped to see more in the locker room, fewer speeches and more action.

Professional athletes aren't given to monologues. They're savants of their craft, and they speak with movement, with shrugs and blurted curses. But if they'd focused more on action, they might have taken time away from the speeches.

No one talks more than Branch Rickey in this movie, and at times it seems too much like "The Branch Rickey Story."

It was Rickey, of course, who used Robinson to break the color barrier. As played by Harrison Ford, he has all the best lines.

Some of his lines work well, especially the one in which Rickey tells Robinson about a white boy Rickey had just seen playing a pickup game in a sandlot.

Rickey describes the white boy reaching down to rub his hands with dirt just like Robinson, taking his warm-up swings just like Robinson, "with his arms stiff," just like Robinson.

"It was a white boy," Rickey says, realizing that his experiment was a success. "A white boy …."

And I thought of white boys like that, white boys just 20 years after Robinson's rookie season, white boys from white-flight families, tension all around them, protests and fear, riots in the streets and cities burning, pretending to be black baseball players.

I was the white boy who said "Say hey" like Willie Mays. My brother Nick would wiggle his fingers on the bat like Ernie Banks. My brother Pete would walk up to the plate, spit and swing just like Billy Williams.

And I'm going to see "42" again, with my sons.

jskass@tribune.com Twitter @John_Kass

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