LOS ANGELES — There’s a scene in “42” in which Jackie Robinson, the first black player in modern major league baseball, endures intolerably cruel racial slurs from the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager.
It’s early in the 1947 season. Each time the Brooklyn Dodgers’ first baseman comes up to bat, manager Ben Chapman emerges from the dugout, stands on the field and taunts him with increasingly personal and vitriolic attacks. It’s a visible struggle, but No. 42 maintains his composure before a crowd of thousands.
As a viewer, it’s uncomfortable to watch — although as writer-director Brian Helgeland points out, “If anything, the language we have in that scene was cleaned up from what it was.”
Such hatred may seem archaic, an ugly episode in our nation’s history that we’d rather forget. But remembering Robinson’s accomplishments is more important than ever, say people involved with “42” and baseball historians alike. And because he was such an inspiring cultural figure, it’s more important than ever to get his story right.
Helgeland, an Oscar winner for his “L.A. Confidential” screenplay who previously directed “Payback” and “A Knight’s Tale,” said he felt “an enormous amount of pressure” to be faithful to Robinson’s story, both because of his significance and because his life had been written about so extensively. That included re-creating games right from the box scores. So when Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) homers during a crucial pennant-race game off a pitcher who’d dinged him earlier in the year, it’s a dramatic moment, but it also actually happened.
“It’s always a tricky thing because it’s a movie, and even in this movie we’re trying to tell two years in two hours,” he said. “You’re obviously not seeing every moment, but the discipline I applied to the script was trying to make sure every moment was documented.”
Helgeland began working on the film two years ago, with the blessing of Robinson’s widow, Rachel, because he felt Robinson “deserves a great big movie.” Robinson himself starred in the 1950 biography “The Jackie Robinson Story,” which also details how Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey (played here by a feisty Harrison Ford) had the courage to sign the fleet-footed Negro Leagues player, despite receiving discouragement from around the league and death threats from fans.
“People would say to me, ‘You’re making another Jackie Robinson movie?’ and I’d say, ‘What was the other one you saw?’” Helgeland said. “(Racism is) always going to be a relevant thing. It’s not a thing that’s ever going to be eradicated. Society has to stay on guard about it and not get complacent about it.”
Boseman, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Robinson, grew up playing basketball but said he learned of Robinson’s importance around the same time he first learned of Martin Luther King Jr.’s crucial role in fighting for civil rights. Robinson’s uniform number has been retired throughout the league — only New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera still wears it, and he’s retiring after this season — but every year on April 15, everyone in baseball wears No. 42.
“The story is relevant because we still stand on his shoulders. He started something — I would even say maybe he didn’t even start it, it started before him. But he carried the torch. And he carried it alone for a period of time before other people could help him,” Boseman said.
Still, it’s a challenge to depict the life of someone who was so inspirational without deifying him. In “42,” which opens Friday, Robinson shows grace in the face of nearly incessant bigotry. That’s why Rickey chooses him of all the talented black baseball players at the time: He had the skills, but he also had the strength not to fight back.
“He would get his revenge on the base paths a little but he didn’t shy away from contact when he was barreling into the catcher, those kinds of things,” Helgeland said.
“You want to humanize him. The romance with the wife (played by Nicole Beharie) does that. The fact that he doesn’t quite get along with (journalist and guide) Wendell Smith does that, which I think was the case in real life,” he said. “You kind of need to go for this vibe: It’s the actor and the director trying to have a feel for what feels real and right in the moment.”
Baseball historian Howard Bryant, author and senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, said he understands that some changes occur in making a film with historical origins, as was the widely publicized case with several 2012 Oscar contenders, including best picture “Argo.” But he said Hollywood can’t take liberties with stories like Robinson’s.
“It would lose its credibility for me. I would lose respect for it if it were a Hollywood show,” said Bryant, whose books include “Shut Out,” about the role racism played in the Boston Red Sox’s struggles. “We have a special talent in this country for scrubbing history, and I’m hoping that’s not what happens to a story like Jackie Robinson’s.”
Bryant points out that major league baseball has been slow to diversify and still has a long way to go. In 2012, 8.8 percent of players were black, with only two black managers and two black general managers, according to the annual report by Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.
“These stories are more important than ever as we throw around very loaded, misleading terms such as post-racial. I think it’s even more important in something like Jackie Robinson’s case because it wasn’t that long ago,” Bryant said. “Jackie Robinson died in ’72 before the major leagues had integrated in the front office. Jackie Robinson died before there was a black major league manager” (Frank Robinson became the first black manager of an American League team — Cleveland Indians in 1975 — and the first in the National League — San Francisco Giants in 1981).
“The four most important teams in baseball history — the Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals and Dodgers — in terms of history, in terms of success, none of them has ever had a black manager,” Bryant said. “We’re not just talking about race. We’re not just talking about baseball. It’s an example of how far we’ve come and how far we need to go. There is this feeling that on April 15, 1947, everything was fine. It was just a start.”
Former major leaguer Dmitri Young, who played 13 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals and now coaches kids in suburban Los Angeles, thinks young people today have no idea what Robinson endured. He hopes a movie like “42” can change that, and can show black kids that baseball is a great game to play.
“I think most people know that on Jackie Robinson Day, everyone wears 42, but they don’t know the significance behind it. ... MLB did it right when they let everyone wear 42 so they can experience that day. When I was playing, they’d pick one black player on each team and say, ‘That’s the guy,’” Young said. “When they let in all the races, that’s what America is all about.”