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Lonnie Bunch on the Film "42"

Interview Conducted by Lanae S.


The new film, "42," sets out to capture the experiences of Jackie Robinson, the first African American player to break baseball's color barrier.

Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), attended a screening of the film and sat down with me afterwards to talk about the impact of this film.

Below are excerpts from my conversation with Bunch, an avid lover of both film and baseball.

On the film's significance to NMAAHC:

In some ways, the Jackie Robinson story is the quintessential story of this museum. It's the story of a struggle against the odds. It's the story of a people using the best skills that they had to make a way out of no way. In essence, part of the appeal of Jackie Robinson for the museum is that, often, history forgets that so much is shaped by individual action. Jackie's story allows us to personalize it, humanize it, and make it accessible.

On the importance of telling stories from an African American perspective:

When you look at the creation of films that explore African American culture or questions of race, many of the mainstream Hollywood films privilege the white character or the white point of view. [In "42"] you see African Americans; you see Harrison Ford [as Brooklyn Dodgers team executive Branch Rickey] strictly as a collaborator and not a paternalistic character telling Jackie what to do. In some ways this is really the first film I've seen that has the right amount of nuance.

On Chadwick Boseman's portrayal of Jackie Robinson:

[Boseman] was able to tell a story the way it really happened. It's not about a heroic Jackie Robinson; it's about how this individual, supported by three amazing people -- most importantly his wife -- persevered. His perseverance transformed baseball and if you could transform baseball, you could transform America.

[Boseman] did a good job capturing the physicality of Robinson, and the pride, and occasionally the pent up rage. In some ways there are three Jackie Robinsons: the Jackie Robinson that had the courage not to fight, but knew what that really meant and the toll that took on him; the Jackie Robinson that wanted to confront evil and try to find ways to confront when he couldn't do it frontally; and then there’s the Jackie Robinson that's in love and away from his wife and just trying to figure out what that meant. Overall, I think Chadwick did a brilliant job.

Bunch's favorite scenes in the movie:

I think there were two things. One is that there are very few films today that showcase a loving African American couple in a way that is both supportive and realistic. The way they signaled each other during the games, that was their way of saying "this is you and me and we're in this together."

The other part was the scene when the Phillies manager yelled racial epithets at Jackie Robinson. The way the camera was positioned made you feel like you were right there standing next to Robinson, so suddenly this manager was right there yelling. I thought that scene was one of the most realistic depictions - to give you a sense of the intimacy of that kind of hatred. But it also showcased the strength Robinson had.

The film's impact on the understanding of African American contributions to sports and integration:

On one hand, the film really did give simple ways to help people understand segregation. It didn't cover segregation at large, but rather told it as a story and showcased its impact on individual people. Such as the story of Rachel Robinson [Jackie Robinson's wife], who's from Pasadena and had never seen a "white only" bathroom, so she actually went inside the "white only" bathroom. It really made your realize where America was some 60 years ago.

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, "42" set a record for a baseball movie, earning $27.3 million during its opening weekend.

Chadwick Boseman and Lonnie Bunch discuss the film 42.

Chadwick Boseman and Lonnie Bunch discuss the film.

Chadwick Boseman and Lonnie Bunch

Chadwick Boseman and Director Lonnie Bunch.