On April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates its annual “Jackie Robinson Day,” commemorating the date in 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers star stepped onto Ebbets Field and became the first African-American to play in the previously all-white top tier of the sport. On April 12, that other all-American institution, Hollywood, celebrates the occasion as well, releasing “42,” a biopic of Robinson directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. In the decades since Robinson’s heroic breakthrough, baseball has put together a much improved record when it comes to racial equality. But Hollywood remains in a slump.
Its failure until now to turn Robinson’s heroic ordeal into a major motion picture is a sad commentary on the film industry’s values and vision. But that embarrassing oversight hasn’t been for lack of people trying. In 1994, after an episode featuring Robinson in Ken Burns’s PBS series “Baseball” stirred up interest, Spike Lee obtained permission to make a film about Robinson from his widow, Rachel. But after years of script problems and financial difficulties that stalled the production, she withdrew the rights. A few years ago Robert Redford tried to get a production going, but that, too, fell through.
Now with Rachel Robinson’s blessings and a $40 million budget, and inspired perhaps by the success in 2011 of “Moneyball,” Warner Bros. hopes to turn the story into a spring blockbuster. It won’t be easy, given the limited crossover appeal of black-themed movies thus far, and a general lack of interest in sports films shown by the increasingly vital overseas markets. Perhaps by having Jackie Robinson share prominence onscreen with Ford’s character, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who persevered in getting Robinson the chance to play, the filmmakers hope to overcome those obstacles. But that might be at the risk of criticism that, like so many other films about black experiences, “42” is told in part from a white-knight point of view.
Whatever the outcome, it will be a big step for an industry in which African-Americans still don’t enjoy a level playing field. Ironically, that inequity becomes especially obvious when it comes to films about blacks and baseball. There aren’t many, but they say a lot about Hollywood’s — and America’s — persistent problem with race.
Once again Jackie Robinson leads the way. In 1950 he played himself in Alfred E. Green’s “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a black-and-white biopic of almost heartbreaking simplicity and earnestness. Yes, it has the corny cliché of calendar pages flipping to show the passage of time, and Robinson is no Boseman when it comes to matinee appeal (he looks a bit like Forest Whitaker and sounds like Deval Patrick). Also, the film whitewashes substantial parts of the story, backing off on Robinson’s righteous fury at the injustices he experienced, and their toll on his life. But by the time you get to the epilogue, with the voice-over proclaiming that Robinson proved that any boy in America can grow up “to be president, or play for the Brooklyn Dodgers,” you might find your eyes getting a little misty.
After that promising start, however, Hollywood turned out almost nothing on this subject for more than 25 years. John Badham’s “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” (1976) might have been a trenchant comedy about the Negro Baseball League, the organization that was the only venue for black players before Robinson changed everything, if it didn’t succumb to some of the stereotypes it ostensibly lampoons. But no movie can be all bad when it has James Earl Jones — nine years after his Oscar-nominated performance as the race-baited boxing champ in “The Great White Hope” — portraying a ballplayer who suggests that his teammates “seize the means of production.”
He’s talking to Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams), captain of the team of the title, who defies the exploitative owners of the league by barnstorming on his own. But even when he resorts to minstrel show gimmicks to draw crowds, the criminal pressure of the owners takes its toll. Those owners are themselves African-American, so Bingo and company are the victims not of a racist system, but of their own race.
Jones would return to the baseball diamond 13 years later, as a fan, not a player, in Phil Alden Robinson’s revered, cornball “Field of Dreams” (1989). He plays reclusive writer Terence Mann, who joins Kevin Costner’s questing hero Ray Kinsella when the latter heeds the voices that tell him “if you build it, he will come.” And so Ray builds it — a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield — and along comes Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), and then his fellow disgraced White Sox teammates (nicknamed “Black Sox” because their owner was too cheap to launder uniforms) who were banned from the game for taking money to throw the 1919 World Series. Too bad Ray didn’t build a field for the generations of guiltless players who were disenfranchised because of their race. At least then Mann’s enthusiasm for the mission might have made more sense.
“Field of Dreams” does touch on one key insight, that economic ruthlessness is as much a source of injustice as racial intolerance. Adulated and (nowadays) overpriced though they may be, ballplayers are just fancy chattel working for “the masters,” as Bingo Long puts it, and slaves to those who control the means of production. That’s the theme underlying an overlooked, sentimental gem from 1990, Robin B. Armstrong’s “Pastime.”
It takes place in 1957, when a young black pitcher entering the clubhouse of an all-white D-ball team doesn’t cause much of a stir anymore. Tyrone Debray (Glenn Plummer) is as shy as he is talented, and he catches the eye of 41-year-old reliever Roy Dean Bream (William Russ), who becomes the kid’s mentor. Bream himself is no hot commodity — his claim to fame is a trick pitch and one golden moment in the majors when he surrendered a grand slam to Stan Musial. With his value exhausted, he’s a liability. Not so Debray; by the end he’s packing stadiums. But what will happen when he can no longer produce? Will he, like Bream, be discarded?
Flash-forward four decades and Debray might well have turned out like Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes) in Tony Scott’s “The Fan” (1996) — an MVP outfielder with a $40 million contract from the San Francisco Giants. A perfectionist, Rayburn pushes himself to prove his worth, getting injured in the process. The resulting slump earns the ire of the fans, but also the scarily intensifying support of unemployed knife salesman Gil Renard (Robert De Niro), the Rupert Pupkin of sports talk-radio callers. Though entertaining throughout, the film eventually unravels into a confusing mess involving fathers and sons, stalking, kidnapping, murder, and a nasty souvenir found in a refrigerator. But underneath it all is the sobering observation that, despite the money and fame, a ballplayer is just another property.
Which brings us back to the Jackie Robinson story, but with a twist. The title player (Algenis Perez Soto) of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Sugar” (2008) carries the hopes of his extended Dominican family in his pursuit of a big league career in the United States. Barely 20, he’s spotted by a scout while playing on a Dominican farm team, and, like Robinson, he gets an offer to play in the minors with hopes of a career in the Show. Unlike Robinson, though, instead of being the only candidate from his background with the burden of proving his worth to the world, he’s one of many fighting for the job. Rather than ruin himself in the pursuit of that dream and risk becoming just one more broken castoff, Sugar finds a league of his own, and it’s not in baseball.