Play Ball

I feel a combination of great trepidation and wild hope about the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic we’re going to get years after Spike Lee considered a similar project. I think it’s a worrisome sign that the project’s started by casting Branch Rickey first, though Rickey is fascinating and could probably hold up a biopic in his own right (I mean, dude commanded a World War I chemical unit that included Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. Seriously badass. AND he drafted Roberto Clemente and is the reason we have the batting helmet and the minor leagues.) and I think Robert Redford is not a bad choice to play him (and I am sure was a help with financing). If this is really a story about Jackie Robinson, that ought to be the first priority, as well as a chance for a young black actor to start moving in on some of Denzel’s territory. Second, this is going to be directed by the guy who gave us A Knight’s Tale. I do think there’s some evidence Brian Helgeland can write, but it’s a mixed bag that includes both L.A. Confidential and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.

Part of the reason I’m so nervous that this is a story that’s tremendously powerful and hugely cinematic, and I’d hate to see the potential get squandered. “There’s no crying in baseball” is a great line, but it has nothing on Leo Durocher’s real-life declaration that “I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a zebra. I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays.” Peter Golenbock’s children’s book, Teammates, about the moment when Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson to shut down a crowd that was booing him, was one of the early lessons I had in solidarity (not, of course, that this should be a movie about Reese, or that should imply that the white men who stood up for Robinson were braver than Robinson himself was, but I think their reactions are an important part of the story).

And really, what are the most recent fantastic movies we’ve had about either baseball or American race relations? America’s preeminent national sport, football, has become enmeshed in extraordinarily complicated dynamics surrounding race, class, and bodily harm—it’s probably not a vehicle we can really use for a conversation about racial equality on-screen right now. But baseball’s past is available to us. If this can be a good movie about both sport and society, it’ll be pretty extraordinary. I realize that’s a high barrier to clear, but I think it’s important to set expectations high.