(The Root) — Is it irony or fate that the same week the film 42 is opening, rumblings are surfacing that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is creating a task force to examine why African Americans make up only 7.7 percent of MLB's players?
The biopic about how Jackie Robinson — the legendary player who broke the MLB color barrier in 1947 — ushered in a new era for the league and black baseball players (outside of the Negro Leagues) makes its way into movie theaters just as a discussion about a long-standing lack of representation of African Americans in the major league is reaching a feverish pitch. Also gaining momentum are discussions about newcomer Chadwick Boseman's performance as the iconic sports figure, raising the question of whether another iconic figure — the Oscar — might be in Boseman's future.
What is the likelihood of an up-and-coming black actor landing the lead role in a major film like 42 anyway, in an industry that is constantly criticized for the lack of complex roles for black actors and the stereotypical representations of black men in the roles that do exist? "I try not to think about it in those terms. It's a lot of pressure," says Boseman.
The Howard University graduate says that he prepared for the role as any other actor would. "When you're in college, you do primary research and secondary research. My preparation was similar to that. I just tried to take in as much as I could about Robinson. Whether I could use it or not or in the moment, I had to figure out where he was mentally and physically. You just prep yourself as much as possible for whatever may come."
Part of Boseman's preparation included baseball practice five days a week, using the equipment that Robinson used when he played the game. "The game hasn't changed, but the tools have. The bats were heavier back then, and you could see why gloves are designed the way that they are today because you couldn't really depend on catching anything with those old gloves."
Boseman practiced with major-league players, attempting to master Robinson's unorthodox swing. Perhaps the most grueling aspect of preparing for the role was using cleats from the era, which Boseman describes as "basically running on nails take after take." He adds, "We went through four or five different pairs of cleats, and my feet took a few months to heal. I would get up in the morning, like, three or four months after we were done and still feel like I had on cleats."
Boseman's physical approach to preparing for the film was connected to the mental preparation for the role. "While you're out there failing and succeeding, you get a sense of the type of pressure that Robinson really is under. You can't play the role unless you know what it's like to have a ball coming to you and it's your assignment," he offers.
"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.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.