Keeping With The Current
America’s Pasttime Gets Cinematic
Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
I come from a baseball-obsessed family.
When I was still in diapers, I tossed around Wiffle balls and swung the oversized plastic baseball bats with my brother (whose first word evidently was “ball”). When I got older, the playful frolics in the backyard evolved into grittier hardball episodes where my older sibling menacingly zinged fastballs and spun curveballs into my miniature leather glove.
While my brother was schooling me on the coarser side of the sport, my dad made sure to educate me in the storied history of the great American pastime. He told me about the great heroes of the game and the feats of such legends as Ruth, Mantle, Aaron, and Mays. He also embedded the hallowed stats of the sport into my head—the great baseball numbers that take on their own ghostly persona: Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak of 56, Ted William’s .406 batting average; Barry Bonds’s career home run record of 762 (or Hank Aaron’s non supplemented feat of 755); and Jackie Robinson’s jersey number of 42.
The last figure perhaps confuses a few of you—how can a simple jersey number be grouped in with great athletic achievements? Yet in many ways, it is the most important number in the sport.
For those less versed in the world of baseball, each team in baseball retires the jersey numbers of outstanding players that have played for the team and impacted the franchise. Jackie Robinson has his number 42 retired by every team in the league, a symbolic gesture that symbolizes the amount of respect the game has for the man who broke the color barrier. Breaking into the sport during the 1940s, a time still deeply entrenched in bigotry, Robinson turned the playing of a simple child’s game into a firm social statement that fostered the movement toward reformation and equality.
But before I get too sporty or profound, let me explain why I’m spewing all this jargon about an old-time ball player.
Last weekend, when I ventured to see Flight in Fenway, I caught a glimpse of the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, appropriately titled 42. Having tracked the production of this film for quite some time, I was a bit surprised that I hadn’t uncovered the trailer on the Internet beforehand, yet it was a pleasant surprise.
From the hints in the trailer, 42 tells the tale of Robinson’s early years as a player and his ascent from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues.
Fresh-faced actor and relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman plays the famous athlete, who brought an end to racial segregation in baseball when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Hollywood veteran Harrison Ford stars opposite Boseman as Branch Rickey, the defiant general manager of the Dodgers who signed the young second baseman.
The preview depicts Boseman uttering one-liners in a hollow voice (“You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts,” he says to Rickey) while intercutting to shots of racial tension and old-time baseball scenes. Ford, in a role dripping with Oscar potential, sports a vintage accent and glasses as he rants about impending social change. The trailer also sports Santigold’s remix of Jay-Z’s popular single “Brooklyn (Go Hard),” giving the film a touch of modernity.
So will 42 work? Robinson’s life is undoubtedly a daunting biography to tackle cinematically, which perhaps accounts for the fact that it took over six decades until Hollywood took on the project. It’s a story that takes on several forms and centers around several powerful concepts—the intangible power of sports, the impacts of relentless determination, and the profound struggle of African Americans during the 20th century, to name just a few.
It ultimately comes down to the artistic choices of writer/director Brian Helgeland. Does the film go the way of Field of Dreams and lament about the unique timelessness of baseball, does it take on a Remember the Titans sort of racial struggle story, or is it more in the realm of Ray, examining the complexities of the life of an American legend?
Whatever the path, 42 might be the one film that I am most looking forward to in 2013. It’s by no means a can of corn, but it still has the makings to be hit a country mile (sorry, I couldn’t help but add some baseball vocabulary).