April 18, 2013 -- This is an effective, by-the-numbers biographical drama about Jackie Robinson famously breaking the major league color barrier in 1947. I was born the same week that Jackie Robinson played his first major league game, and I first saw this film on April 16, 2013, the day that every major league player annually wears the number 42 to commemmorate this man.
It is surprising how many people are not aware of how far we have come as a nation from this time in history time when black men were not allowed to play major league baseball. Much of the South was segregated. There were still laws prohibiting black people from marrying white people. A black person could be killed, just for trying to vote in the South. Extreme racism was still prevalant among what is now called “the greatest generation,” but a member of that generation took a big step to change things for the better in 1947.
Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson in the film, and he does a fine job with that role. The real surprise, however, is the veteran actor Harrison Ford, who plays the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. Ford really disappears into this character, changing his voice and mannerisms. It is a very impressive performance by an actor who usually doesn't disappear into a role like this. Playing Robinson's wife is Nicole Beharie of “The Express.”
This film covers the bases as you would expect it to, depicting some historic baseball people, like Pee Wee Reese (played by Lucas Black of “Jarhead”), Eddie Stanky, Carl Furillo, Joe Garagiola and famed baseball announcer Red Barber (played by John C. McGinley of “Alex Cross”). One of the better performances here is by veteran actor Christopher Meloni playing the iconic manager Leo Durocher.
In the film, Branch Rickey decides it is time to integrate baseball, so he recruits a player from the Negro Leagues, Jackie Robinson. He meets with Robinson and tells him he needs a player who can stand up to the opposition and abuse he will have to take without losing his temper and getting into fights. Robinson agrees to control his temper and act like a gentleman, but this proves very hard to do.
Now a lot of people criticized the film “Django Unchained” because the dialog in the film made extensive use of the word “nigger.” That word is also used a lot, perhaps just as much, in this film. I wonder if people will complain as much about this film. I would guess not. It should be noted that word was used a lot at those times in history. Indeed, it was still being used a lot right into the 1970s.
The film follows Robinson through 1946 and into 1947, playing for the Dodger's minor league team, the Montreal Royals. It shows the opposition he faced, such as unfair calls by umpires, being hit in the head by thrown baseballs, being spiked, being insulted, being threatened. In one minor league game in the south, a cop steps onto the field to throw Jackie out of the game because desegregated baseball is not allowed.
What the film doesn't show is the social movement influenced by the Negro press, civil rights groups, the Communist Party, progressive white activists, and radical politicians, labor unions and writers who had been campaigning since the 1930s to integrate baseball. This laid the groundwork for Robinson's success, according to an April 11, 2013 Atlantic article by Peter Dreier. For instance, Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith (played by Andrew Holland in the film) had been one of those campaigning for the integration of major league baseball since the 1930s, but this isn't mentioned in the film.
This is not an exceptional film, but it is solid. The story is compelling. The acting is good and the historical period, including the old ball parks, are recreated very convincingly. The baseball scenes are well done. This isn't a big budget movie, but it sure doesn't look like it was done on the cheap, either. It looks very well crafted. This film rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.