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“42”: First Good Christian Movie of 2013

Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947
Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947

“42” is the first very good, but not quite great, movie of 2013.

“42” is also the first good baseball movie in a couple of years. (“Moneyball” was pretty good in 2011, but “42” is better.) “42” is also the first good Christian movie of 2013.

In other words, go see “42.”

“42” tells the true story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball in the modern era, when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. After a year with the Montreal farm club, Robinson took the field with the Dodgers in 1947.

That’s just long enough ago to be “an earlier time” for most of us. In the 21st century, it is nearly impossible to fathom the response our nation had, just 66 years ago, to a black man stepping onto the baseball field with white players.

It made headlines across the country. Some of Robinson’s own teammates signed a petition stating their refusal to play with him. Some opposing teams threatened to forfeit their games.

Robinson and his family received death threats. When he took to the field, many in the stands booed. When he was at bat, pitchers aimed for his head. When he was on the field, base runners spiked his legs. Opposing managers and players taunted him publicly with vicious epithets.

Robinson, just 28 years old, endured it all. He took the sins of a nation upon his young shoulders without lashing out or fighting back.

Martin Luther King was 18 years old that year. Just seven years later, in 1955, King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks is famous for bravely refusing to move to the back of the bus, sparking that boycott. But Parks wasn’t the first to demonstrate such courage. In 1944, two years before being signed by the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson, an Army soldier, refused to give up his seat on an Army bus at Fort Hood, Texas. He was brought under court-martial and acquitted.

I am a white man, but I owe a debt of thanks to Jackie Robinson for making America a better nation. I certainly have no desire to live in a country where African Americans or people of any race are degraded for their skin color or deprived of liberty or respect. Although racism certainly still exists, I am thankful for how far our nation has come, and thankful to Robinson and King for leading the way.

“42” not only tells the story of Robinson, but of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who courageously defied the color line by signing Robinson to his team. Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, in one of the best performances of his career.

Branch Rickey was “a dedicated, Bible-loving Christian,” according to his biographer. Of all the great players in the Negro Leagues, Rickey chose Robinson partly because Robinson was a fellow Christian. Like Rickey, Robinson’s mother was a devout Methodist, and Robinson himself taught Sunday School.

When Rickey challenged Robinson to become major league baseball’s first black player, he warned Robinson that he would be subjected to hatred and threats of violence, to which he would have no choice but to follow Christ’s admonition to turn the other cheek, to be someone “with guts enough not to fight back.”

If Robinson had attempted to fight racism with his fists, he could never have beat all the ignorance and hatred out of an entire nation. But by standing there, by taking it, by turning the other cheek, by rising above, by proving that he was far the better man than those who derided him, Robinson forced the entire nation to take sides — either with the brave young man standing proudly on the field alone, or with the ignorant, hate-filled racists in the bleachers.

The one shortcoming of “42,” and it is a big one, is that although the movie highlights Rickey’s faith and love for the Scriptures, it fails to shine the same spotlight on Robinson’s faith. Rickey was a great man, but the title of this movie is “42.” That’s the number that Robinson wore as he stood defiantly on the ballfield as thousands surrounding him poured out their venom. “42” is a good movie that could have been great if it had done more to reveal Robinson’s inner motivations, especially the faith that empowered him.

Jackie Robinson was indeed a Christian, who ended each day on his knees in prayer, especially during the anguish of 1947. In one of the few times the movie does give a glimpse of Robinson’s faith, he tells his wife, Rachel, that he won’t give up.

“I won’t,” Robinson said. “God built me to last.”

In Oklahoma City, it is rare for a theater audience to applaud a movie. I am pleased to say that in my neighborhood last Saturday, the Jackie Robinson story, as told in “42,” received an ovation from my fellow theater-goers. I recommend it highly.