The Washington Nationals were hosting the Chicago White Sox, but for my money the best seats in town were up in Friendship Heights where the stadium seats were packed to get a glimpse of number 42. Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball, is beyond legendary. And in bringing the story to the screen writer/director Brian Helgeland — if you’ll excuse me here — hits it out of the park.
The story actually starts with Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, announcing to his closest staff that he intends to bring a player from the Negro Leagues onto the team. He quickly settles on Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) both for his talent and history playing on integrated teams in college at UCLA and for his demonstrated dislike of segregation. Rickey clears the way for Robinson, allowing only Robinson’s new wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), to accompany her husband to spring training, setting up journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) as his valet, and reining in Clay Hopper (Brett Cullen), manager of the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ farm team Robinson played on in the 1946 season.
Things don’t really get going until the 1947 season, when Rickey moved Robinson up to the Dodgers, which doesn’t go over well with some of the players. Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) keeps them in line at first, but he’s suspended by the commissioner and replaced with Burt Shotton (Max Gail). Shotton is genial and means well, but he seems less effective in tamping down dissent.
The emotional core of the film is the Dodgers’ first series with the Phillies in 1947, with color commentary courtesy of the Dodgers’ own Red Barber (John C. McGinley). The Phillies oppose integrating baseball, and the vitriol poured out by manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) is nothing short of shocking. This provides Boseman with his one truly great scene as he struggles to control his rage — Rickey famously hired him in the hopes he’d “have the guts not to fight back” — and also serves as the tipping point for the other Dodgers to start rallying around their teammate.
But as I said, this is the only really meaty scene Robinson gets, and the movie feels a little thin on his own internal processes. Also absent is much of a reaction from the black community, aside from a scene where Smith tells Robinson he’s not the only one with something riding on his performance. In a very real way, this is less a story about black players coming into white baseball than one about white baseball — and white America — coming face to face with its own privilege which it can no longer ignore.
Which is not to say that something of a black perspective is entirely missing. Helgeland’s control of the audience’s emotions is so masterful that when a white man approaches the Robinsons a little too fast, I tense, fearing an attack; every casual slight and sneer sticks in my skin until I want to lash out in defense; and when a white child in the Cincinnati stands follows his father’s lead in jeering at Robinson, my heart breaks at how easily the well is poisoned. “Sympathy”, Rickey calls it. “Suffering-with”. But it works the other way, too: when a young black boy watches in wonder Robinson board the Royals’ train out of Daytona Beach, it’s impossible for me not to believe that titans walk among us.
Boseman is good here, but the real standouts in the cast are Ford and Tudyk. Chapman is a vile character, but a pivotal one, and Tudyk has a real knack for villains. Ford, though, feels like he’s been treading water for years, and here he delivers one of his best performances ever. He nails the physicality of Rickey’s bearing and manner, and nowhere does Helgeland’s script sound better than coming out of Ford’s mouth, filtered through Rickey’s midwest twang.
It does feel a little disappointing that Robinson fades into his own story like this. But he did tell the Hall of Fame voters in 1962 that he wanted to be judged on his performance as a player rather than on his cultural impact. Beyond being an exceptional athlete and a genuinely decent man — both of which were certainly important — the most notable thing is that someone took that first step and faced those trials. It’s what everyone else did that counts, in the end.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.