'I see great things in baseball," the Camden bard, Walt Whitman, once wrote. "It's our game - the American game."
And, like America, it has had to come to terms with segregation, bigotry, ignorance, and hate.
42 is the inspirational account of that historic coming-to-terms: It is the story of Jackie Robinson's demolition of Major League Baseball's color barrier. A star player in the Negro Leagues, he was handed a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in April 1947.
There were teams in the Jim Crow South that did not want him in their stadiums. In fact, there were teammates in Brooklyn who did not want him in their locker room. There were hotels - including, as the film reminds us, in Philadelphia - that refused to accommodate the Dodgers with a black man in their lineup. There were jeers from the crowds, death threats.
And there was Robinson, one of the most gifted players in the annals of the sport, gleefully stealing bases and swatting balls out of the park. And stoically dealing with the epithets, the threats of physical harm.
It's a great and triumphant story, and writer and director Brian Helgeland (an Oscar winner for his L.A. Confidential screenplay) brings it to life in burnished, old-fashioned Hollywood style.
In the 1990s, after Spike Lee and Denzel Washington took on Malcolm X, the director and the star talked of doing a Jackie Robinson biopic. It never happened, and maybe that's a good thing.
Casting a relative unknown as Robinson - the keen-eyed Chadwick Boseman - works in 42's favor: the audience doesn't know what to expect of Boseman, just as Major League Baseball didn't know what to expect from Robinson.
Not so with Harrison Ford, who adopts a codgery Midwestern demeanor to play Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president and general manager, and the man who decided it was time to integrate the game. This is the closest Ford's come to real acting in a long time - his body language is different, his voice, the way he tilts his head and peers out through round tortoise shells. His Rickey is a decent man, a religious man (like God, he jokes, a Methodist), a man with a sense of righteousness. And also a sense of business: there are a lot of black people who love baseball and who will buy tickets to the games at Ebbets Field, he figures.
42 doesn't shirk from showing how daunting it was for Robinson to turn the other cheek, as Ford's Rickey tells him he must do, in the face of the insults and hostility. At bat in Shibe Park, Robinson isn't just hurled fastballs - he's hurled a slew of racial slurs from Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). Not a high point in the team's history, or the city's.
Nicole Beharie stars as Rachel Robinson, Jackie's steady-as-a-rock wife; Andre Holland is Wendell Smith, the black sportswriter credited with suggesting Robinson to Rickey, and shown here to be number 42's Boswell - the typewriter-toting chronicler of Robinson's record-breaking, barrier-breaking career.
There's a scene early on when the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' International League affiliate, are in spring training, and Clay Hopper, the manager, expresses a reluctance to coach a black player. Ford's Rickey shows his understanding of how the manager, a Mississippi native, was fed racism "at your mother's breast," and then reads him the riot act. Tolerance, respect, inclusivity.
On April 15, every player on every Major League team wears the number 42 on his uniform. It's a symbolic gesture, but a beautiful one, and 42 honors that tradition, with pride.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.