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.