“I have learned that I remain a black in a white world.”
I waited a long time for an updated movie version to come out about Jackie Robinson. Seems like 10 or 15 years ago Spike Lee was talking about doing a film on Robinson. As I watched the movie 42, I found myself wondering what the Spike Lee version of Robinson’s life would look like.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Brian Helgeland’s version of Robinson’s story—when someone asked me about the movie I said the film was a solid base hit, maybe even a double. (A tip of the hat to Helgeland for someone finally getting a film on Robinson made.) Loved Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. Loved the cinematography. Critics have called it “competent,” “decent,” “heartfelt,” “inspirational,” “sincere,” “uplifting” —you get the picture.
Rudy, The Blind Side, The Natural, Breaking Away and Hoosiers are all films that found a wide audience and could be called competent/decent/heartfelt/inspirational/sincere/uplifting. In general those were well made films the whole family can enjoy. We need those kinds of films because they represent the world we want to live in. Not perfect, but heading in the right direction.
From a producer and studio perspective, 42 is a home run pulling in more than $50 million in its first ten days at the box office. So just about everyone is glad that 42 got made.
But I’d still like to see the Spike Lee version. The version that didn’t pull any punches. Less pop, more jazz.
I grew up playing baseball in many of the same towns (Daytona Beach, Deland, Sanford) where Jackie Robinson started his pro career–and sometimes playing in the same ballparks. In some ways I was the fruit of Jackie Robinson that is alluded to in 42, I was a white kid whose heroes were black. (I played second base and wide receiver in the ’70s after Robinson was already dead and Joe Morgan and Paul Warfield were the two athletes I most wanted to emulate.)
But I was also very aware of racial tension. Perhaps that tension is one of the reasons it took so long for a modern telling of the Jackie Robinson story to get made. And I imagine that studios didn’t have confidence that a Spike Lee version of the Jackie Robinson story would top the box office the opening week, or bring any return on the investment.
In the movie 42 they have Jackie Robinson being asked by a sheriff in DeLand, Florida to leave the field. But here’s what Jackie Robinson (and his co-author) wrote in his book I Never Had It Made:
“When the Royals came up against Indianapolis in Sanford, the game had begun and the crowd in the ball park had surprised us all by not registering any objection to my playing second base. In fact, the fans rewarded me with a burst of enthusiastic cheers when I slid home early in the game. I was feeling just fine about that until I got back to the dugout. [Coach] Hopper came over to me and said Wright [a black teammate] and I would have to be taken out of the game. He said a policeman had insisted he had to enforce the law that said interracial athletic competition was forbidden.”
Changing the story from Sanford to Deland may seem minor. In fact, in the paragraph before that Robinson said that a game in Deland was cancelled because the lights weren’t working—even though it wasn’t a night game. (I’m not sure why the change was made in 42, because there is a scene in the movie that shows Robinson basically being run out of Sanford.)
But I don’t believe Spike Lee would have changed that little fact. Because Spike Lee would have been more than curious that 60 years after Jackie Robinson wasn’t allowed to play in a baseball game in Sanford that Sanford would make national news as the town where Trayvon Martin was shot dead. I don’t pretend to know what happened to Trayvon that night and will trust in the courts to find justice.
Some would have called it race-baiting but I believe Spike Lee would have told a truer version of the struggles that Robinson faced as he broke the color barrier in modern-day professional baseball. And in doing so he would have told the story with a contemporary context and given us a contemporary challenge. Art can sometimes inspire and sometimes it can provoke. There’s no question that Jackie Robinson’s life was inspirational, but we can’t miss the fact that his book was titled “I Never Had it Made.”
The movie 42 is the American Bandstand version of Jackie Robinson’s life. I just wish we could now watch the Soul Train version.
Related Posts: Blacks in Black & White –“We’re a great country. We’ve got great stories. And for the most part, the great stories of people of color have not been told.” Spike Lee
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip #6)
Touch and Go (A play I saw a couple of years ago based on Sanford, Florida.)
Related Article: The Jackie Robinson biopic and me by Mike Downey (Discusses three failed attempts in past to get a film made about Jackie Robinson.)
P.S. Check out The Jackie Robinson Foundation.
P.P.S. When I was a 19-year-old photojournalist with The Sanford-Evening Herald I photographed Tim Raines in his hometown of Sanford. The great baseball player would go on to earn $35 million dollars playing professional baseball. More fruit of the partnership of Robinson and Branch Rickey.
Scott W. Smith
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