"Plaaaay Ballllll!" Yes, the Boys of Summer are at it again and this time, I learned a LOT about where American baseball has been and the fundamental changes that have happened in my lifetime. Even though we already know how it ends, thanks to a terrific PG-13 script by Brian Helgeland (Oscar for "L.A. Confidential") this insight into the Great American Pastime is an excellent reminder of how far we have come, thanks to courageous trail blazers like Jackie Robinson, who integrated professional baseball in 1945 at the instigation of Branch Rickey, a baseball executive who loved the game.
We cringe at the language used to attack our hero, we are saddened by the refusal of hotels and restaurants to serve a team that includes a black man, we are enraged by the racist heckling that takes place and we cheer when we see a man quietly rise above the rancor and "just play ball."
Here is a sample of the (huge) wonderful cast:
- * Chatwick Boseman ("The Express" and lots of TV) is heroic as the legendary Jackie Robinson, whose Brooklyn Dodgers uniform boasts a "42" on the back. Despite Jim Crow laws, blatant racism and a potential lynch mob, he staunchly maintains, "I'm just here to play baseball."
- * Nicole Beharie ("Shame") is Robinson's gentle wife, Rachel, who is the calm at the center of his storm. The Robinsons are from Pasadena, so neither of them had ever encountered segregation; they had only read about it.
- * Harrison Ford ("Ender's Game" SOON!) is marvelous as Branch Rickey, the man who first brings a black man (Robinson) into Big League Baseball. He pulls no punches when he lays out what is in store for Robinson; he gives excellent advice. He explains that "God is a Methodist."
- * Christopher Meloni ("True Blood") as Dodger coach Leo Durocher, Jackie Robinson's first defender on the team. He blasts the rebellious Dodger teammates who threaten to boycott until Robinson is fired: "If Robinson can help us win, then he's gonna play on this ball club."
- * Alan Tudek ("Firefly" and LOTS of TV) as Ben Chapman, the racist Philadelphia coach whose vile heckling of Robinson finally turns the tide. The crowd can't help but sympathize with his victim.
- * Lucas Black ("Seven Days in Utopia") playing Southerner Pee Wee Reese, another legend who had to come to grips with his own prejudice. Eventually he tells Robinson, "Maybe tomorrow we'll all wear a 42 on our uniforms, that way nobody will be able to tell us apart." (This has become an annual event.)
- * Hamish Linklater ("Lola Versus") is Ralph Branca, the teammate who tries to invite Robinson to shower with the team. The more awkward he becomes, the funnier the scene becomes.
The screening audience was entertained, thrilled and inspired, our applause was richly deserved, and we all went home much smarter than when we came in. Be sure to stay for the final credits because there are some interesting (and satisfying) postscripts.
Please take children to see what our tawdry past looked like not too long ago. They will be shocked!