Monday, April 29, 2013

A portrait of grace and courage

Last week Susan and I saw the movie '42.' It is the story of Jackie Robinson who, in 1947, became the first African American to play Major League Baseball.

If you want to see a story of courage, grace and persistence, this is the film for you. The narrative is compelling and the cast is outstanding.

Chadwick Boseman is entirely convincing as Robinson. He obviously studied Robison's trademark base-stealing runs, and his portrayal of dignity under virulent and unrelenting abuse on and off the field cannot fail to move. Equally touching is the quiet but unflinching support of his wife, Rachel, played by Nicole Beharie. In today's era of fallen sports heroes it is nice to see such integrity in professional and family life.
Harrison Ford is perfectly cast as Branch Rickey, the executive who signed Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey was a religious man ("God is a Methodist") who takes his faith seriously. He tells baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, who is resisting Rickey's effort to break the color bar,  "One of these days, you’re going to meet your maker, and God’s going to ask you why you didn’t let Jackie Robinson play baseball, and you’re going to have to say, ‘because he was black,’ and that might not be a sufficient answer."

But as a shrewd businessman, Rickey also understands the fundamental truth that money is green, not black or white. Racism is not just evil, it is an economic loser.

Anyone who thinks racism was confined to the Deep South will be startled by the unvarnished portrayal of prejudice in New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. A teammate confides to Robinson his nervousness about playing in Cincinnati so close to his home state of Kentucky. But as the crowd boos and shouts racial epithets he walks across the field and puts an arm around Robinson's shoulder: his family is in the stands and he wants them to see. 

One cannot see '42' and not draw some parallels with Obama's experience two generations later. Although the disrespect is now cloaked in questions about citizenship and religion rather than an overt racial attack, the underlying strategy is the same. Its particular cowardice lies in the knowledge that the target cannot respond in anger.

We saw '42' in a packed movie house with a diverse and multi-generational audience in Richmond, Virginia. At the end everyone applauded.

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