Disclaimer: I’m as white as they come. Oh, I’ve got some Hispanic in my blood, but you can’t really tell by looking at me, and you definitely can’t tell when looking at the culture I was raised in. Regardless, I’m definitely not black. I will never understand what it’s like to be black in a white-dominant culture, nor will I ever claim to. But here I am reviewing a movie about an African-American hero. I review it as a white man looking in, though that makes my experience of it no less valid and no more lacking, simply the experience of a white man. Take it for what it’s worth.
The story of Jackie Robinson is well-known by now, especially by sports fans, but for those of you who don’t know it, I’ll recap quickly: Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) wants to bring an African-American ballplayer into the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, and he decides that player should be Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Robinson is more than willing to take a chance at the big time, but he encounters all kinds of racism from players on other teams, coaches of other teams, spectators, and, most tellingly, his own team. The story climaxes in a victory scene, of course, like most sports movies; this one, however, carries extra weight, because the movie implies the victory isn’t just the team’s. It belongs to all African-Americans everywhere.
I’m not a Jackie Robinson expert, but one only has to visit Wikipedia to learn that the movie may not be historically accurate*. Even the movie’s peak, when Robinson hits the homer to win the Dodgers the pennant, isn’t quite factual. That didn’t bother me though. Arguments could also be made that we don’t get to see the real Jackie Robinson; the script doesn’t allow much breathing room for a lifelike Robinson, so we see a more idealized version. This didn’t bother me either. This movie wasn’t meant to be a documentary, and it wasn’t even meant to show us who Jackie Robinson was as a person. It was meant to tell the story of the legend of Jackie Robinson, and it does a fantastic job of just that**.
Director Brian Helgeland is painting in broad strokes here, and he knows it. We don’t see too many cracks in Jackie Robinson’s armor; with all he goes through here (jeers, taunts, name-calling- Django Unchained might be the only recent movie to use the N-word more), you might expect him to break down a little more. We see him explode exactly once, obliterating a bad against the wall of a tunnel in the middle of a game. Instead, Helgeland concentrates on showing us how Robinson’s presence changed baseball and contributed to the wider changes to come in America as a whole. We watch as Robinson’s teammates gradually come to understand his plight. Some of them are outright against him being on the team at first, while others are more welcoming. When Jackie’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese, puts his arm around Jackie at a game with some particularly hateful fans, it’s arguably the movie’s greatest moment. This happened in real life, and lives on in an iconic photograph.
The movie is undeniably square, but shoot, I got caught up in its emotional buildup. Boseman is at once restrained and volatile as Robinson. He could have been a passive participant in his destiny, but Boseman gives him drive. Harrison Ford is revitalized as Branch Rickey; when is the last time he gave a performance this passionate and well-modulated? His Dodgers owner preaches over and over again to Robinson that he must refrain from retaliating to the vitriol spat at him by white people. Not an easy request. And it’s the lifeblood of this movie; Robinson is an African-American hero, but it’s that willingness to turn the other cheek that turned him into a hero for everybody.
*Wikipedia, by contrast, is always historically accurate.
**As on board as I am with this version, I’d still like to see a less worshipful movie. The version being tossed around in the ‘90s with Spike Lee at the helm and Denzel Washington as the man himself sounds particularly delightful.