LOS ANGELES — The legend of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier more than 60 years ago, gets a human touch in biopic “42,” that opens in U.S. movie theaters on Friday.
Chadwick Boseman, who stars as Robinson, said he wanted to remake the iconic image of the Hall of Fame baseball player, who has long been seen as a stoic figure with an unshakable will in the face of racial hatred, into an emotionally complex man who privately raged against racist taunting.
“I was able to explore him as a man and not an idea,” Boseman told Reuters. “Some people say he’s almost a perfect person, but he’s not.”
Boseman, 36, a little-known face on Hollywood’s big screen, stars opposite Harrison Ford, who plays Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who paved the way for Robinson to enter Major League Baseball in 1947.
“42″ takes its name from Robinson’s number, which Major League Baseball retired from use for all players in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Robinson becoming the first black player in the league.
“I was just able to sort of put myself in [Robinson’s] shoes and breathe his life in any situation and try to search for those dark moments and the type of person he was, based upon what he said and what other people said,” Boseman said.
The actor, who has appeared on TV series such as “Fringe” and “Justified,” said he sought insight into Robinson’s personality and emotions at that time from his wife, Rachel Robinson, with whom he met several times to prepare for the role.
“I could tell from how strong their relationship was. The best way to say it is you’re seeing a piece of the puzzle,” Boseman said. “They’re a complete puzzle together. I could see the edges of who he is from who she is.”
The Robinsons were married from 1946 until Jackie’s death from a heart attack at age 53 in 1972. Rachel, now 90, founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation to help educate underprivileged youth in 1973.
In the film, director Brian Helgeland fashions Robinson and Rickey as precursors to the Civil Rights movement. Robinson is forced to endure — and ignore — bigotry and taunts while Rickey quickly ships out players who refuse to play alongside Robinson.
In one early test of resolve, a reporter asks Robinson what he would do when a pitcher intentionally throws at his head.
“I’ll duck,” the infielder quips.
But Helgeland also shows Robinson as at times confused and frustrated by his status.
“It was important to show what he was thinking in the process, how did he get to the place where he made the decisions he made and where did he in some cases fall short of it,” Boseman said.
Robinson’s anger over racial abuse hits a climax when an opposing manager stands on the field shouting racist insults while Robinson is at bat.
Unable to retaliate, Robinson comes apart in the tunnel connecting the Dodgers bench and clubhouse, smashing his bat in front of Rickey, who challenges him to rise above racism.
“At some point he had to break,” Boseman said. “And the fact that Rachel Robinson didn’t fight us to take [the scene] out [of the film], to me proves that it is true.”
Although more than half a century has passed since Robinson’s final game in 1956, Boseman said the film also reflects the scars millions of black Americans still bear today.
“We still have people that remember that time living,” he said. “But the fact that it wasn’t that long ago lets you know that some of those things still resonate.”
“42″ is distributed by Warner Bros., a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc.