“42” and Its Power to Teach

Last week I saw the film, “42,” which captures the early events in the Major League Baseball career of baseball legend, Jackie Robinson. Robinson is known as the first black man to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era. In addition to the great feat of stepping onto an all-white baseball diamond, Robinson succeeded in impressing spectators with his excellent playing skills.

Despite the movie’s fantastic reviews, I went into the theater with a sense of hope sedated with skepticism. I have seen too many cheesy films that failed in portraying racial integration matters. Racial equality is such an important and still highly relevant issue in our society, so I become discouraged when I see films or books do a disservice to the individuals in the very real stories. “42,” however, did not disappoint me. In fact, after watching this movie, I feel even more strongly about the role such movies can hold in our culture as reminders of struggles past, and obstacles still ahead.

As a woman who has grown up being a member of Generation Y, I am very well aware — both on my own and from being told — that I take a lot in life for granted. Whether it’s workers’ rights, gender and racial equality in sports, or the right to an education — my generation expects and demands “fairness.” It is so much a part of my fabric, that until I watched “42″ I never really understood just how much I took it for granted that people of all races and cultural backgrounds could play the national sport of this great melting pot we call America. Growing up, my favorite baseball players were from a variety of countries and presented a wide range of skin tones. I thought nothing of it.

However in the theater, I watched Jackie Robinson, outstandingly portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, step onto the field as the only black man. I truly felt like I was witnessing a magical moment in history. I held my breath and was overcome with emotion. I felt fear in expectation of the overt racism I was sure to witness, I felt stunning joy as the sport I love was made more accessible, and then I felt shock. I was shocked that I had not yet felt anything like this in my life, especially when so many Americans before me have. Racial exclusion and its subsequent defeat were two pieces of the American experience I had yet to observe — until I did vicariously did through “42.” Until I realized how shielded and far removed I have been from this dark side of our history, I wasn’t able to realize the magnitude of Robinson’s courage and his impact on later generations.

In one scene, a young black boy adoringly watches Jackie Robinson play. What must that have been like for that little boy, who was caught in the middle of a long-term racial revolution and battle? He and his mother were required to use a different entrance than the white spectators at the game, but there, on the field, was an adult – a role model – who shared his skin color, struggles, and interest in baseball. We learn later in the film that the little boy was Ed Charles, who went on to play baseball in the major leagues as well.

I know this movie struck a chord with me, because of something I realized just last night when I watched “Field of Dreams.” This being my all-time favorite movie, I’ve seen it anywhere from 30-40 times. However, last night I noticed something I had never paid much attention to before. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) discusses an interview given by Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in which Mr. Mann states his childhood dream was to watch Jackie Robinson play baseball at Ebbets Field with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now that I’ve seen “42,” I can grasp the significance of what that would mean to a black child living in an age of segregation.

I’ve heard one of the goals of “42″ was to bring awareness to younger generations, such as mine, about the challenges in overcoming racial segregation and the overwhelming importance of those struggles. While I inherently know that racial segregation is wrong, and I acknowledge that Jackie Robinson and his family endured many pains to bring equality to the sport — until I saw the film and was able to bear some kind of witness to this, I did not fully understand. And thankfully, now I do understand — at least a little bit more.