'42' Gets The Story Of Jackie Robinson Right Biographer Arnold Rampersad is "a bit of a stickler for accuracy," but he finds that — with a few exceptions — the 2013 biopic about Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball really rings true.
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'42' Gets The Story Of Jackie Robinson Right

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'42' Gets The Story Of Jackie Robinson Right

'42' Gets The Story Of Jackie Robinson Right

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And as we close out 2013, we thought we'd spend some time this week returning to some of the year's films, particularly the ones that begin with the words - inspired by a true story. We're asking this week how much of these movies is true and how much is inspired. Well, this next movie takes us back to the 1940s when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. It wasn't easy.


SIEGEL: That's a scene from "42." Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson. And joining me to talk about the film is Arnold Rampersad, who is a professor emeritus of English at Stanford University and the author of a biography of Jackie Robinson. Welcome to the program.

ARNOLD RAMPERSAD: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Does Jackie Robinson in "42" ring true to you as the Jackie Robinson you've written about?

RAMPERSAD: It absolutely does. While you have you give credit to the director, the actors for their take on their story, as it were, fundamentally, the story is accurate, remarkably so, in my estimation.

SIEGEL: Talk a little bit about Branch Rickey, who was the president and general manager of the Dodgers. It starts with him as he reveals his plan to bring a black ballplayer to his team. What motivated Rickey?

RAMPERSAD: Well, that's a question hotly debated over the years. In the movie, Rickey presents himself as a pragmatist. I want to win games. I want to make money. But then at other times he says, I'm a Methodist, Robinson is a Methodist. God is a Methodist. So he suggests that there are sort of religious reasons. But I would say, above all, he wanted to intervene in the moral history of the nation in the way that Lincoln had, to some extent.

SIEGEL: A person who plays a key role in the story in the movie "42" is the black reporter who is sort of assigned to the job of escorting Robinson around, being his contact. I gather it's true. And how would you describe the way the film deals with the reporters who covered the Robinson story?

RAMPERSAD: Well, Wendell Smith is the key person here. And he was, in fact, retained by Branch Rickey to follow Robinson around. He does stand in for a number of figures in the press and their names are not mentioned ever in the movie and, to some extent, that's unfortunate.

People like Lester Rodney of the Daily Worker, the communist press, had been arguing for a long time vociferously about the need for integration. But Wendell Smith was crucial, and he does a wonderful job in the movie bringing a certain perspective to the story, especially when he has this confrontation with Jackie Robinson, who is resenting the fact that he's being squired around by this journalist.


SIEGEL: I wonder, by the way, you mentioned that the sportswriter for the Daily Worker, the communist paper - communists had been agitating for breaking the color line in baseball for years at the time that Robinson entered. Some people would say that actually Brooklyn was the ideal place for Robinson to go in because there actually were a lot of communists in Brooklyn. It was very - it was a place that would be interested in seeing the color line broken.

RAMPERSAD: Well, Branch Rickey had been in charge of the Cardinals for 20 years before coming to Brooklyn in 1942. I don't think he could have tried this with the Cardinals. But you're right. Brooklyn was the ideal place and the time was right, too, particularly because of the changes that had overtaken America during World War II.

SIEGEL: The drama between Rickey and Robinson is all about turning the other cheek. It's about patience. And here's a moment in which Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, tells Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, they're going to provoke you.


SIEGEL: Was that the real story between the two of them, Rickey, the voice of control yourself, you're more important than just you the individual, and Robinson wanting to fight back?

RAMPERSAD: Yes. Rickey did, in fact, virtually sign Robinson to a non-aggression pact, but he put a time limit on it of three years. Also, though, one has to remember that Rickey was well aware of the fact that Robinson had been court-martialed...

SIEGEL: In the service. He defied segregation, yeah.

RAMPERSAD: Yes, fighting segregation. So he knew he was hiring someone who was a fighter.

SIEGEL: I wonder, do you think that if Robinson had not been a terrific ballplayer, I mean, one of the best players in the major leagues by the time he arrived, or if he had lost his head and, you know, hit somebody with a bat or something like that, do you think that the integration of baseball actually could have stopped at that point? Or was the country, post-World War II, going to do this at that point regardless?

RAMPERSAD: I don't think it would have stopped. For one thing, Rickey had already virtually signed up at least two other black players. So from the beginning, he saw Robinson as simply the first of several players who would come to the Dodgers. And I think, also, we should recognize, in looking at Robinson, that many people thought that he would fail as - physically as a ballplayer.

It was never his greatest sport. His greatest sport was probably basketball, if it wasn't football. It was astonishing how well he succeeded, really, given those facts.

SIEGEL: So you give a two thumbs up, the movie "42," yes?

RAMPERSAD: I - yes. I am a bit of a stickler for accuracy of representation. There are elements in the movie that are invented.

SIEGEL: What's the most made-up thing that you've seen?


RAMPERSAD: Well, there's a figure of Ed Charles, who later starred with the Mets, was a little boy in Daytona Beach and Robinson tosses him a baseball, and he puts his ear to the train tracks as Robinson's train goes away. And Ed Charles himself said, well, that wasn't true but everything else was true. I was deeply inspired by Robinson. I did go to the ballpark to watch him practice.

SIEGEL: As I recall, when Ed Charles played Major League ball, he was the rare ballplayer who actually wrote poetry at the time. So perhaps he knows from poetic license in that case.

RAMPERSAD: I think he does.

SIEGEL: Professor Rampersad, thank you very much for talking with us today.

RAMPERSAD: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Arnold Rampersad, professor emeritus of English at Stanford University, author of a biography of Jackie Robinson, talking with us about the movie "42."


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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