“You have to kind of play it to get how much pressure this person is under and how it’s personally affecting him,” he continued. “How is it emotionally affecting him? How could a mistake get in his head? How much could his teammate looking down on him affect him? I tried to figure out what he was thinking moment to moment because a lot of things, he can’t say,” says Boseman.
Robinson is often portrayed as a stoic man who “showed and proved” on the baseball field but without much fire in his belly, an assertion that many sports scholars challenge. Robinson was a man who would rush the mound, who fought hard against injustice on and off the field, even fighting a court-martial — and winning an exoneration — while serving in the Army in Texas for refusing to give up his seat on a bus to a white person.
This complicated public image of Robinson posed another challenge for Boseman, who had to decide how to portray this legendary athlete. “I had to figure out the type of person Jackie Robinson was and how to play him. If I play him passively — in a way where he just didn’t say anything back to his detractors — then I’m not doing anything,” Boseman said.
“What I found in everything I read, and especially when you heard the Negro League players talk about him, is that like most Negro League players, he was basically an opinionated, assertive, outspoken person who was not afraid to fight, and all of that,” Boseman continued. “In acting, we talk about what a character is bringing in the room. I had to figure out what Jackie Robinson was bringing in the room at key moments in the film.”
Robinson wasn’t the first black person to play in Major League Baseball, but he is credited with breaking the color barrier in a way that forced people to make changes in baseball. Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker suited up for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 and cracked the door open for Robinson, 63 years before that game-changing day at Ebbets Field in 1947.
So like Robinson, Boseman is bringing something into the room in a role that has landed him squarely in the major leagues of Hollywood. He’s bringing the weight of other black actors’ performances in the role. Indeed, Robinson played himself in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, 63 years before Boseman’s turn at bat.
Like Robinson, too, Boseman is poised for success through preparation, humility and respect for those who came before him. But also like the baseball legend, Boseman understands that he has the weight of black actors’ still-emerging options in Hollywood on his shoulders, even if he isn’t loud about it.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.