Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Changing the Face of the American Game
The Saint of Swat

One of the great "unmade" movies is the story of Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the baseball player who broke the color barrier in the quintessential American game.

Oh, it has been made before: Robinson, himself, older and showing the effects of the strain the game and his task had put on him, starred in a B-movie version, The Jackie Robinson Story, in 1950;   Ken Burns' definitive documentary Baseball made his story the lynch-pin of the parallel stories of The Game and race relations in America in the 20th Century (and will probably always be the best telling of what happened).

But Robinson's story has been kicking the turf of home plate for a couple of decades lately—Spike Lee has been working tirelessly to make a film of his story for that long, and I've always wanted to see his version of it, as his directorial voice would absolutely put a distinctively personal philosophical spin on the heroics of it.  A Spike Lee "joint" might also provide some angry tension that was part and parcel of the Jackie Robinson Story, but could never be expressed, lest the long-delayed abolition of sanctioned (but unspoken) segregation of baseball fail in a double-play of racism posing as informed sports commentary (which still goes on today for some reason).

Brian Helgeland's film about Robinson, 42 (the number Robinson wore for the Dodgers and the only number permanently retired in the MLB), doesn't have the inflamed spirit that Lee might have imposed, and is content to stick to the facts, which are enough as the events were charged with over-laying race issues, prejudice posing as business politics, and the uneasy first faltering post-war steps to civil rights legislation.

Make no mistake.  It was a super-human task to be the first black man in an all-white league.  He was a fine hitter, a better runner, and a brilliant strategist who would earn runs without connecting bat to ball, merely by "freaking out" pitchers by stealing bases.  Plus, he had a defiant spirit that would not let prejudice stand.  He wouldn't "just take it."  But, the "handshake" part of his signing with the Dodgers was that he would have to "take it," whatever was thrown his way, be they death-threats, or murderous pitches.  He promised his manager that he would not fight back, show restraint, and be the model player. 

Oh.  The bottom line was that he had to perform, as well.

Robinson and Rickey on the day he signed with the Dodgers
Robinson knew the opportunity that his role would provide, not only for him but also for other "Negro players."  He was described as "a race man," passionate about the lot of African-Americans in a country with Jim Crow laws in place, segregated bathrooms, water faucets and diners, and prejudices not so public under the guise of "tolerance," that actually seemed to take pride in a sentiment like "separate but equal."  And he shouldered it, showing the humility and great generosity of his spirit, always saying the "breaking of the color barrier" was not his story but Branch Rickey's.

But, as dramatized in the film, it was also the story of everyone in the Dodgers organization, especially the players, initially reluctant to allow Robinson in, and upon seeing the rough treatment he was getting from fans, other teams, and previously friendly hotels and restaurants, becoming his ally, team-mate, friend, and first line of defense.  Robinson's imposed tolerance in the face of hate, naked or subtle, inspired empathy with his fellows, and his play raised their game, making all of them better players, and in the words of Dodger announcer Red Barber "better men."

Performances are uniformly excellent.  Harrison Ford is top-lined as Rickey, and Ford chews into the role the way John Wayne jawed Rooster Cogburn, growling and over-playing just a little bit to provide "character," Christopher Meloni of "Law and Order: SVU" does a fine job playing Dodgers coach Leo Durocher, soon replaced by "Barney Miller"'s Max Gail as Burt Shotton, Lucas Black plays Pee Wee Reese and Ryan Merriman plays Dixie Walker, and Nicole Beharie plays the devoted Rachel Robinson with a bracing mixture of grace and spine.  Alan Tudyk surprises with a particularly unsympathetic portrait of Philadelphia coach Ben Chapman, whose taunts on-field But special praise has to be given to Chadwick Boseman's performance as Robinson, which he has down cold.  There's enough footage of his play to copy, but what he nails is Robinson's expression, the enigmatic not-a-smile, and the wary eyes and darkened brow of the already burned and suspicious player, a bit of a caged lion not allowed to roar.

It's a good tribute to the man, if only missing a little bit of the fire that must have burned in the man to accomplish what he needed to, and that needed to be internalized amid so much pressure.  He (with Rickey's patronage) turned the puerile accomplishments of a kid's game (the wins, the records) into something far greater for humankind (American division).  He was the slugger who couldn't hit back, who turned the other cheek and turned America around.  Babe Ruth was baseball's "sultan of swat."  Robinson is its saint.

42 is a Matinee.

As dramatized in the film, Robinson posing with Phillies coach Ben Chapman who was criticized for shouting racial slurs at the player during a game.  This photo op was Chapman's way of trying to fend off charges of "unsportsmanlike conduct." He was fired by Philadelphia in 1948.  Looking at the smile on Robinson, casual and a bit cocky, "helping out" the guy by posing with him, always makes me smile.

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