42 and Jackie Robinson's Legacy: An Interview with Director Brian Helgeland
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Director Brian Helgeland's new movie, 42, covers Jackie Robinson's controversial start in major league baseball as he becomes the first African-American to don a pro-team's uniform. More than just covering the iconic figure who astonished critics and fans with his talent on the field, Helgeland also chronicles his life beyond the diamond.
An Oscar winner for his work on L.A. Confidential, Helgeland writes and directs this personal biopic, with Chadwick Boseman in the role of Jackie and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who hires him.
In an interview with CBN.com, Helgeland shares what he found most interesting about Jackie, about the baseball player's faith in God and how his stance against racism changed baseball and our country.
Hannah Goodwyn: It's easy to forget that Jackie Robinson was more than just a two-dimensional, historical figure pictured on baseball cards. What did you find in your research about this man's struggle? Did anything surprise you?
Brian Helgeland: What's impressive about him is that even before he ever had anything to do with the Dodgers, he was already doing kind of very brave things. When he was in the army, he wouldn't sit in the back of a military bus, a bus that was servicing the base that he was on, taking people from here to there. It was down in Texas, and he wouldn't go to the back of a bus years before that ever came up, even as a protest and was court marshaled for it and he won the court marshal. But even back then, that's the kind of guy he was.
I think what amazed me is when you get into an actual baseball season, every single day, all through the spring, all through the summer. And so, this wasn't an act of bravery that he had to prepare himself for one day, you know, on April 15th, you're going to walk out on the field, and be the first African American baseball player. It was a thing he had to go and do every single day, for a seven-month baseball season in different cities. He had to go to the plate and back for times a day, every single day, and display to these crowds every single day, and take abuse every single day. It wasn't a one-time event, and that sort of grind that he went through, and subjected himself to, I think is a pretty amazing thing.
HG: The trailer for 42 alludes to a very strong bond between Jackie and his wife, Rachel. Why was it important to put focus on their relationship in the movie?
BH: Because it's human. He and Rachel had been engaged for five years and had agreed that they wouldn't get married until he had a steady job and she had got out of school. So, the first thing in his mind, almost, is that he got a steady job and that they can now get married. So, on a personal level, being brought to the Brooklyn Dodgers meant he could get married. They got married almost immediately. And I thought that that was very human and shows the human side of him and a yearning to be with the woman that he loved. That immediately makes an audience relate to him much more than “I'm off to be a hero.”
HG: Rachel has said she hopes the movie encourages young people to believe they can survive terrible times, and with the help of committed relationships, they can make a difference. Please share about hearing stories from her perspective.
BH: To be really honest, when I got involved and I was told about Mrs. Robinson, I didn't even know that she was still alive because the events that we show in the movie happened over 65 years ago. So, I was really surprised about that.
And then to actually meet her, I think she's 90 now, but to meet her and sit with her, and hear how sharp minded she was about the whole thing was really amazing. The fact that I was dealing with someone who lived through it, rather than just reading about it in a history book, made it much more immediate. He needed her as much as he needed anything else, support-wise. And more so, it was a blessing to have her as a resource.
HG: Brooklyn Dodgers exec Branch Rickey asked Jackie to ‘turn the other cheek'. What did Rachel say about the racism both she and her husband encountered?
BH: She sat up in the stands and heard the abuse raining down on him, around her. She was ignored, at first, by the other players' wives, partly just because they didn't know how to interact with her. And what I thought was really amazing was it felt like he never brought his work home with him, so to speak. Whatever anger and frustration he was experiencing, he didn't take it out on his family. In fact, [Jackie] sought her out as a kind of island, a respite from all of it.
HG: Did Rachel share anything with you about Jackie's faith?
BH: She said he was almost first and foremost a man of great faith, a Christian man, Methodist, which [he and] Rickey had in common. [She said] that when all this happens, the start of it, that he felt as though he was chosen and that he had a huge responsibility, that he relied on his faith all the way through, to get him through all the hardship that he faced.
HG: What's your take on the Christian themes in Jackie's story, specifically referring to loving one another, bearing one another's burdens and standing for what you believe in?
BH: Yeah, I think it's Rickey who has the line… "Love your neighbor is one of God's most repeated commands". So, that's certainly a part of it. And standing up for what you believe in…. Pee Wee, when he puts his arm around him, sort of declared to the world who he is as a person. To declare his support for Jackie, to do all that in the open, so everyone can see you is certainly part of the story. I think he had that odd ability, Jackie Robinson, to make the people around him choose, and he took the ideas of integration and racism, which he could discuss around a dinner table, and put a face on it, and made a human being out of it, which suddenly makes it a much different thing than an idea. A lot of it in the movie is speaking about doing the right thing, and standing for what you believe in, despite what anyone is going to say to the contrary, and there's certainly a lot of, especially with Rickey, references to the Bible, and references to the Ten Commandments, and all of those things.
HG: Jackie Robinson once said, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." What impact do you hope to make?
BH: First of all, when I was working on the film, I tried to stay out of the way because he's a braver man than I'll ever be. Anything I think or believe is absolutely secondary and superficial to what he believed and stood for. So, I was always very aware of making the film to let Jackie Robinson speak for Jackie Robinson, and not through me, at all. If anything, I hopefully just gave him the movie that he deserves and Branch Rickey deserves. That you can see his bravery, his everyday bravery of having to go out on the field every day and that hopefully people, any person could see that in your own lives, even in small moments, they can be brave and do the right thing.
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