I’m a sucker for sports movies, and the trailer for 42 revved up my emotions every time I saw it. Branch Rickey’s (Harrison Ford) growling, “I want a ballplayer with the guts not to [fight].” Jackie Robinson (the until now underutilized Chadwick Boseman) dropping to the dirt after being beaned in the side of the head by a fastball. The scenes of baseball and racism from the 1940s interspersed with each other over the fast rap beat. I knew I had to see it.
The Story: Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (the mind behind one of my favorites, L.A. Confidential, and a diverse set of films), the film plays out as you’d expect, if you’ve read anything about the life and times of Jackie Robinson. But just to make sure the stage is set early, the film gives us a recap of what has just occurred on the global stage: World War II has just been a U.S. victory with the help of an integrated army, but the re-entry into all aspects of life for these African-Americans is anything but. And then Rickey had an idea.
A Methodist, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers decides he’s going to forcibly break the color barrier in baseball and puts Robinson on his minor league team with full intent to have him playing in the big league soon. Through a series of antagonisms, Robinson, who is also a Methodist, works his way forward, slowly gaining the begrudging respect of his teammates because of his skilled play and, for the most part, silence in the face of bigotry.
For fans of baseball, and anyone interested in how Robinson impacted the color barrier on and off the field, 42 is a no-brainer. Having grown up watching the PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize about the civil rights movement and later, Mississippi Burning, 42 falls somewhere in between, neither fully forcing us to see how bad the bigotry was (in the physical abuse or death that occurred) nor turning away to sanitize it all. The face of evil is clearly Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), but what is more remarkable is the number of people who are on the fence about racism who slowly must pick a side.
Among them are many of the players on the minor league team and later, the Dodgers themselves, who grow to admire Robinson. They see firsthand some of the abuse, and recognize that the generalizations made in private are much harder to voice when staring another human being in the face; they recognize that Robinson can play and that he makes them better, and if he is in fact a teammate, he deserves their support. They see that his play is all-out all of the time, and that his reaction to abuse is not retaliation but to channel his anger into legal play on the field (the Padres and Dodgers should be forced to watch this film this weekend). Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) is the most famous of those men, but several others support Robinson in stages of his rise to stardom in the league.
The Takeaway: While the trailer does show off a significant number of things (like the guts conversation and the Leo Durocher tantrum), it still doesn’t steal the emotional thunder of Robinson and Rickey’s relationship. Whether you see the reason for Rickey’s decision-making coming or not, you’ll find yourself wondering what scars in your life are meant for someone else’s healing. When Robinson comes along, he’s picked for a reason, for Rickey’s purpose, but it’s a situation where both men are stretched and healed by the influence of the other.
And then there’s the overtly religious takeaway: that Rickey openly compares Robinson to Jesus Christ, who had “the guts not to fight back” when faced with trials, torture, and death on the cross. Seeing the story play out in living color, it’s hard NOT to see Robinson as a Christ-figure, and recognize that there are many issues facing our world today where we should stand up, put our arms around the shoulders of another, and say, “this is the relationship we’re modeling for the world.” Whether it’s racial or not, discrimination exists beyond the frames of our textbooks and the problems of other nations, and if we fail to make a stand, we will suffer the fate of Martin Niemoller’s lament:
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
“Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
“Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
“Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Rickey and Robinson recognized their mission, and followed through. They believed that Robinson was “built to last,” that he could pursue his baseball dream regardless of the odds because he knew what was really important (love of God and family). They believed that he had the “guts” to do the right thing even when the world around him was wrong. Those moments matter as they determine our path, whether we’re standing for ourselves or someone else, and they matter because in those moments, we experience love.
Everyone experiences a moment when they need to know the love of another to get them through. And that love will make all of the difference. Robinson was loved by Rickey, by his wife, by his teammates (some of them). And ultimately, his love of the game ignites a passion that breaks the color barrier, and means our country will never be the same. Robinson was in fact built to last, both as a color barrier-breaking ball player, and as a hero who stood in the face of adversity and overcame.
Ultimately, we need to decide if we’re built to last, when the challenges of life face us. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we speak up for truth? Will we defend those who cannot defend themselves? Will we challenge the status quo with the will of God behind us and the hope in the kingdom of God? Will we have the guts to?