Culture

Jackie Robinson’s faith missing from ’42’ movie

A new film about Jackie Robinson, titled 42 — the number he wore during his historic career — tells the triumphant story of how the Civil Rights icon integrated professional baseball by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Photo courtesy http://42movie.warnerbros.com

(RNS) A new film about Jackie Robinson, titled “42″ — the number he wore during his historic career — tells the triumphant story of how the Civil Rights icon integrated professional baseball by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But there’s a mysterious hole at the center of this otherwise worthy film.

A new film about Jackie Robinson, titled 42 — the number he wore during his historic career — tells the triumphant story of how the Civil Rights icon integrated professional baseball by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Photo courtesy http://42movie.warnerbros.com

A new film about Jackie Robinson, titled 42 — the number he wore during his historic career — tells the triumphant story of how the Civil Rights icon integrated professional baseball by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Photo courtesy http://42movie.warnerbros.com

The man who chose Robinson for his role, and masterminded the whole affair, was Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford. In their initial meeting, the cigar-chomping Rickey makes it clear that whoever will be the first African American in major league baseball will be viciously attacked, verbally and physically. So Rickey famously says he’s looking for a man “with guts enough not to fight back.” He needs someone who will resist the temptation to retaliate. Robinson agrees to go along with it.

But where did Rickey get that crazy idea and why did Robinson agree? The film doesn’t tell us, but the answers to these questions lie in the devout Christian faith of both men.

Why Robinson was chosen

For starters, Rickey himself was a “Bible-thumping Methodist” who refused to attend games on Sunday. He sincerely believed it was God’s will that he integrate baseball and saw it as an opportunity to intervene in the moral history of the nation, as Lincoln had done.

And Rickey chose Robinson because of the young man’s faith and moral character. There were numerous other Negro Leagues players to consider, but Rickey knew integrating the racist world of professional sports would take more than athletic ability. The attacks would be ugly, and the press would fuel the fire. If the player chosen were goaded into retaliating, the grand experiment would be set back a decade or more.

Rickey knew he must find someone whose behavior on and off the field would be exemplary, and who believed “turning the other cheek” was not just the practical thing to do but the right thing. In their historic meeting, to underscore the spiritual dimension of the undertaking, Rickey pulled out a book by Giovanni Papini, titled Life of Christ. He opened to the passage about the Sermon on the Mount and read it aloud.

We know that Robinson’s passionate sense of justice had gotten him into trouble earlier in life. But the patient mentoring of pastor Karl Downs convinced him that Christ’s command to “resist not evil” wasn’t a cowardly way out but a profoundly heroic stance.

When he met Rickey, Robinson was prepared for what lay ahead and agreed. But it was a brutally difficult undertaking. Robinson got down on his knees many nights during those first two years, asking God for the strength to continue resisting the temptation to fight back, or to say something he would regret.

Will Hollywood learn?

But the filmmakers of “42″ were evidently uncomfortable with all this and simply avoided it. To put it in baseball terms, they decided to pitch around it.

Of course, Hollywood has been skittish about faith and religion since at least the late 1960s. Even when it’s almost impossible to avoid, filmmakers find a way. The Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” omitted the central role Christian faith played in how Cash overcame drug addiction. Even in 2007’s “Amazing Grace,” about British abolitionist William Wilberforce, the story of his conversion and the huge role faith played in his political efforts is essentially left out.

And now in 42, Hollywood’s done it again, check-swinging a bloop single past the infield when a fence-clearing clout — or at least extra bases — was easily possible.

Omitting the role of faith in this story does a serious disservice to history — and to the memories of Robinson and Rickey. But it’s also financially foolish. The recent megasuccess of “The Bible” miniseries and the cool $600 million earned by Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 are just two reasons why. The audience for faith-friendly films is huge and growing.

Which brings us back to another reason Rickey did what he did. He believed bringing African Americans onto the baseball field would bring them into the stands, too, and ticket sales would increase. Which is precisely what happened.

So isn’t it time Hollywood integrated faith into stories where it rightfully belongs? Why should such stories be excluded from the mainstream in a nation that’s filled with people of faith? If filmmakers do the right thing — and break the “God line”— they’ll find there are countless millions who’d cheer stories like that. And who’d pay to see them too.

(Eric Metaxas is the author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. He writes about Jackie Robinson in his new book “Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness.” This column originally appeared in USA Today.)

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Eric Metaxas

18 Comments

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  • The film mentions the Methodist faith of both men.

    Metaxas received a very poor review of his Bonhoeffer book in the Christian Century, for using the man’s life and thought to forward his own right wing political agenda. Makes me wonder what he’s up to now.

  • Great story! And by the way, if you check out Wikipedia, you’ll find barely a mention that he had anything to do with faith. It does mention slip in, almost as an afterthought, that Rev . Karl Downs was involved in his life, but not in so serous a way as to deserve only a brief mention. Robinson’s personal faith (which was significant), even the religious denomination that he practiced, is not even mentioned in Wikipedia. But why is that any of a surprise; the founder of Wikipedia itself, Jimmy Wales, is a hard-core, anti-Christian atheist. Much of what they publish is left-wing slanted, and definitely anti-God.

  • Bonhoeffer was a well-written, well-researched and very excellent account of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life; and I highly recommend it. I give little merit to critics, especially when it comes to all things Christian. I just learned of Branch Rickey’s deep faith, this week, in an article I read. This is why I do not look to Hollywood to depict stories truthfully, when it comes to history. It comes as a pleasant surprise when they do allow those things to slip through. I do give them credit, however, for choosing to remind America of who the great Jackie Robinson was. Perhaps a Christian filmmaker will decide to give each man’s indispensable Christianity, as evidenced in their lives, its due?

  • Edit: I do not look to H-wood to depict these kinds of stories, containing Christian testimonies, with the full truth.

  • Additionally, Hollywood rarely describes the lack of and/or hatefulness of many character portrayals of that type of failed person…abetting the implication that bigots in real life are worthy people.

  • Wikipedia is an effectively neutral resource. Things that violate that neutrality tend to get edited out by the community promptly. You’re reading your own bias into something that’s not there, in the same way as the author of this post. For the vast majority of people, religious faith isn’t the defining characteristic a lot of evangelicals choose to turn it into. It’s there, and it’s part of life, but not the consuming sociopolitical agenda it is for some.

  • Meet the Press on Sunday interviewed documentary producer Ken Burns who is producing a longer, more fully told story of Jackie Robinson. It the story of his faith can be told, we would hope it is told there.

  • How in the world can you say the movie didn’t show Robinson’s faith? Faith isn’t shown by words, but by actions and Robinson’s faith was worn on his sleeve, in his heart and through every bit of his actions.
    During Rickey’s conversation about having the guts not to fight back, he was clear to say the idea came from Jesus saying “turn the other cheek” and Robinson was right there with him in the conversation. So Rickey DID mention where he got the idea from. Also, Rickey mentioned in the beginning that Robinson was methodist. For me, his “religion” showed through his actions. Yes, Rickey was more outspoken, but I believe Robinson was speaking just as much from his gut and actions. He didn’t need words. Was he on his knees in every scene of the movie? No. But at the worst of the worst moments for Robinson, when he was fighting against his own tension in the tunnel, he was on his knees. How he responded to the hatred, the devotion to his family, to his work, and to the man who walked with him through all of it – was very much coming from his soul and from his faith.
    You must have watched a different movie. Or, you forgot to read the book of James.

  • “But it’s also financially foolish. The recent megasuccess of “The Bible” miniseries and the cool $600 million earned by Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 are just two reasons why. The audience for faith-friendly films is huge and growing.”

    I think you’ve just made a great case there why “42” did NOT go down that cr*ptastic path of fundy agitprop: the filmmaker wanted to make an actual film, not a Come-to-Jebus moment for convicted-and-usually-convicting.

    I enjoyed “42” (DESPITE the fact it heroically portrayed a member of the Hated-Dodgers—I bleed Black&Orange, Go Giants! <3 ).

    I wouldn't have gone anywhere NEAR an "If you loved 'The Passion of the Christ', you'll like…"-type production. [And don't get me started re "The Bible" on the HISTORY Channel! }-X ]

    It's the oldest rule in the movies: "Show, Don't Tell." If you SHOW JackieR displaying Christ-like nonviolence, it speaks a million times more powerfully than how many times he may have invoked "Jesus!" on his knees (If there's a Hell, it's filled w/ "Jesus!" crowd, anyway: "but their hearts are far from me")

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