Jackie Robinson, the film “42” and the Obama years

The Obama years continue to push American culture in unexpected ways.  The latest manifestation of this phenomenon is “42”, a film about the great African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson, who became the first black man to play in Major League Baseball.

American racists may be unhappy, but Obama’s post-racial America is a whole lot closer now than it was five years ago when he was battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.  Too many things have happened in American culture for the clock ever to go back to where it once was.  Using US Census data, the Pew Research Center concluded in December 2012 that in the last Presidential election, for the first time in US history, blacks appeared to vote at a higher percentage rate than whites.  And further, this shift has been operating for the last four Presidential elections – in other words, back to the year 2000.  And here’s the thing:  this new pattern of voting has been happening in spite of well-funded and vigorous attempts by the Republican Party and conservative groups to disenfranchise black voters.

Well, back to Jackie Robinson ….

Jackie Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.  He played for ten seasons, including six World Series and six All-Star games.  With a lifetime batting average of .311, he was the National League “Rookie of the Year” in 1947 and that league’s “Most Valuable Player” in 1949.  In 1997, his baseball number – 42 – was officially “retired”, so no-one else would use it in any team.  Thus that number still holds a strong resonance for baseball fans, past and – presumably – future.

“42” had a great promotional start, premiering in Los Angeles on April 10, 2013, before its cinema release on April 12.  Five days later – April 15, 2013 – Major League Baseball celebrated its yearly “Jackie Robinson Day”, a day when all players wear uniform number 42 – in honour of the memory of Robinson.  (Neat timing, huh?)

“42” stars the relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ General Manager.  It’s written and directed by Brian Helgeland, a superior screenwriter (“L.A. Confidential”, “Mystic River”, “Robin Hood”, “Green Zone”, “Taking of Pelham 1,2,3”) who may yet become an accomplished director.

Robinson played himself in the only other big-screen version of his life, the 1950 film called “The Jackie Robinson Story”.  Other screen portrayals have all been on television, including John Lafayette playing Robinson in “A Home Run for Love” (1978), Andre Braugher in “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson” (1990) and Blair Underwood in “Soul of the Game” (1996).  In addition, a 1981 Broadway musical called “The First” (book by critic Joel Siegel) starred David Alan Grier.  With “42”, Robinson has made it back to the big screen.  It’s no coincidence that First Lady Michelle Obama hosted Robinson’s widow Rachel and the cast of “42” at the White House on April 4, 2013.

“42” also holds a “tie” record for one of the shortest film titles on record.  I recall reading some years ago that the average length of the title of an Oscar-winning film was about 1.4 words.  Think “Castaway”, “Braveheart”, “Titanic”, “Amadeus”, “Atonement”, “Babe”, “Babel”, “Capote”, “Casablanca”, “Chicago”, “Chinatown”, “Crash” ….  Need I go on?  Two letters, however, is hard to beat.  Possible, but not by much.

“42” was originally scheduled for a May release in Australia, but now appears to be “tbc”, despite the presence of film great Harrison Ford.  American baseball movies, no matter how good they are, don’t tend to do well in this country, as we lack that sporting tradition, with the game genuinely foreign to most film-goers here.

View the film’s trailer here:

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