Roy Exum: Our ‘42’ Premiers April 12

Sunday, February 24, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I watched what we used to call a “preview” of the upcoming movie “42” the other day. I haven’t been to “The Picture Show” in so long I didn’t know that the teasing little snippets for the upcoming movies, always shown on the Big Screen right before what we used to call the “feature,” are now called “trailers.” Isn’t it funny how words change?

Actually, trailers came along before previews did. They used to show the teasers after the feature – thus, trailers – but patrons got wise, leaving the theater after the full-length movie instead of sticking around. The movie industry then made the teasers appear before the feature, as previews, but still calls them trailers, for whatever that’s worth.

Anyhow, in the trailer for “42” you see this crowd of people walking into Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium, which you will remember the movie moguls gussied up last summer to look just like Ebbets Field once did back in 1947, and overhead is a sign that bears another funny word: “Coloreds,” a word once used to direct black people where to sit or from which fountain to drink. It’s a key scene because “42” centers on the life of Jackie Robinson and its whole theme is about how he endured horrible and relentless racism to break the color barrier in major league baseball.

I can remember far, far back when I was a tyke at Engel Stadium and saw there was a section for “Coloreds” at the East Third Street park. Fans back then called it “The Coal Pile.” Just the thought of such racism today makes you want to throw up but – in candor -- that’s the movie 42’s hook. The big movie poster shows a huge “42” – Jackie’s number – and under it are the words, “A true story of an American Legend.” You can see the movie – and the hundreds of Chattanoogans who were extras in it – when the much-awaited film premiers on April 12.

There is another great scene in the trailer, where a shaken Jackie Robinson (played by Chadwick Bosseman) has an emotional meeting with Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). In the trailer the exchange lasts for about six seconds but in the movie – just as it has in history and life --it will have far heavier meaning

As the late Dr. Martin Luther King once said of Robinson, “Back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, (Jackie) understood the trauma and humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

Red Smith, the great sports writer of the same era, famously wrote, “The word for Jackie Robinson is ‘unconquerable,’” clacked his typewriter. “He would not be defeated. Not by the other team and not by life.”

In the trailer, both actors are fabulous as they enact the key scene but if you really want to feel it, let’s go to the dazzling biography that Dr. Arnold Rampersad wrote in 1997, “Jackie Robinson” (Alfred Knopf Publisher) and look at it as Robinson himself did recounting it to Dr. Rampersad, who at the time was Dean of Humanities at Stanford University:

* * *

“Rickey made clear that Jack’s ability to run, throw, and hit was only one part of the challenge. Could he stand up to the physical, verbal, and psychological abuse that was bound to come? ‘I know you’re a good ball player,’ Rickey barked. ‘What I don’t know is whether you have the guts?’

“Jack started to answer hotly in defense of his manhood, when Rickey explained, ‘I’m looking for a ball player with guts enough not to fight back.’

“Caught up now in the drama, Rickey stripped off his coat and enacted out a variety of parts that portrayed examples of an offended Jim Crow. Now he was a white hotel clerk rudely refusing Jack accommodations; now a supercilious white waiter in a restaurant; now a brutish railroad conductor, he became a foul-mouthed opponent, Jack recalled, talking about ‘my race, my parents, in language that was almost unendurable.’

“Now he was a vengeful base runner, vindictive spikes flashing in the sun, sliding into Jack’s black flesh—‘How do you like that, N***** boy?’ At one point he swung his pudgy fist at Jack’s head. Above all, he insisted, Jack could not strike back. He could not explode in righteous indignation; only then would this experiment be likely to succeed, and other black men would follow in Robinson’s footsteps.

“Turning the other cheek, Rickey would have him remember, was not proverbial wisdom, but the law of the New Testament. As one Methodist believer to another, Rickey offered Jack an English translation of Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ and pointed to a passage quoting the words of Jesus—what Papini called ‘the most stupefying of His revolutionary teachings.’

“‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right check, turn to him the other also. And if a man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.’”

* * *

Let me add a postscript to the afternoon Branch Rickey changed the game – and a good chunk of our nation -- with the perfect player, Jackie Robinson. I believe that man-to-man moment in the Brooklyn Dodger’s fourth floor office at 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn touched both men very deeply. Rickey, you know, was such a true Christian he wouldn’t attend Sunday games and Jackie had a deep and profound faith as well.

So this next blurb came from a tattered page out of the Houston Chronicle:

* * *

“Before Rickey’s death in 1965 at age 83, he sent a telegram to Robinson, who by that time was retired from baseball and involved in the Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr.

“Wheelchair bound and suffering from a heart condition, Rickey apologized to Robinson for not joining him at the march on Selma, Alabama.

“Robinson responded with a letter that read, in part: ‘Mr. Rickey, things have been very rewarding for me. But had it not been for you, nothing would be possible. Even though I don’t write to you much, you are always on my mind. We feel so very close to you and I am sure you know our love and admiration is sincere and dedicated. Please take care of yourself.’”

* * *

Gee whiz, the movie “42” is indeed about an American legend who set the same example “The Brown Bomber” -- Joe Louis -- did on the boxing canvas and Jesse Owens did on that track in Berlin in front of Hitler himself, paving the way for Muhammad Ali and a host of other noble blacks who today we better identify as Americans. What a difference they have made in all of us.

See you at the movies on April 12. Because it was partially filmed in Chattanooga, I’m already partial to the movie “42.”

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