A few months ago, I was immersed in a conversation with a young African-American man in his early 20s. He graduated from an elite college in New England and was working in a professional capacity in Manhattan.
During a discussion about the challenges of the world of segregation in the first half of the last century, he revealed that he had no idea that Black travelers were denied access to restaurants and restrooms when they rode along the highway. I was stunned that this young, educated African-American man knew little to nothing about the dehumanizing features of Jim Crow America.
That is one of many reasons why there is extraordinary value in the film “42,” the biographical sports drama that portrays Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball. The film, which stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, was the top grossing movie during its recent opening weekend.
The film has received grudgingly positive reviews, with critics generally calling it a good, if not great work. Certainly, it will not rank alongside “Citizen Kane” or even “Roots.” Nonetheless, it is an important film, if for no other reason than for its ability to acquaint a new generation of Americans with the derision and humiliation that Black people routinely experienced in the country when segregation was the law of the land.
Robinson was, of course, an iconic pioneer, the first African-American baseball player to join the ranks of the major leagues. He endured taunts from his fellow baseball players and from the folks in the stands. The film makes clear that the abuse took a toll on him, as anyone might expect. It was a lonely and chilling world in which he lived. It shows his brilliant skill, how he could make an art form out of stealing bases.
But the film is far more than a baseball movie. It spares no effort to paint in stark and harsh colors the indignities suffered by Robinson and, by extension, Black people of that era throughout the country. The America of the 1940s was a place where restrooms were segregated, where hotels would rather lose money than accommodate Black guests and where white Americans could hurl the most stinging of racial epithets at people of color without fear of retribution or even criticism.
And in viewing the racism of the past with such clarity, the viewer better understands how the nation inherited a contemporary culture where young men of color are stopped-and-frisked and where the voting rights of the marginalized are compromised by right-wing legislatures. In one scene in the film, Robinson is whisked out of the town where he is training because of threats to his life. That town was Sanford, Fla., a city that would become infamous more than 60 years later as the place where a 17-year-old high school student named Trayvon Martin would be killed.
The filmmakers behind “42” have done us a service by painting such a vivid portrait of where we were as a society in the late 1940s. It helps us to better understand the issues with which we’re still grappling in 2013.