Rachel Robinson reflects on her life with Jackie and the movie 42
Rachel and Jackie Robinson were married from 1946 until 1972, when Jackie died at the age of 53. Rachel is now 90, and she still comes to work a couple of days a week at the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she started 40 years ago. The Foundation has helped to send thousands of students to college. Rachel has a couch in her office where she sometimes talks with visitors, including, early last year, the actor Chadwick Boseman, shortly after he was cast to play Jackie in the movie 42. Boseman had really wanted to meet Rachel. He is 31 and was born a decade after Jackie's death.
They sat down in her office and Rachel said to Boseman: "The first time someone wanted to make a film about my husband, Sidney Poitier was going to play him. Then it was going to be Denzel [Washington]. And now they are doing it with you."
There was quiet for a moment and then Boseman laughed out loud while Rachel looked at him. "It was like she didn't want me to take the role lightly—this was her husband I was playing," says Boseman. "Not that I would take a role like Jackie Robinson lightly! But that just broke the ice. She has been supportive of me and encouraging and helpful the whole way through."
Rachel lets her opinions be known, as she did to Brian Helgeland, 42's writer-director who sometimes showed her the script along the way. (Helgeland "welcomed my suggestions, so long I wasn't too critical," says Rachel.) At one point she was hoping the movie might include some of the civil rights work that Jackie went on to do, but now she understands the dramatic power created by the movie's tighter focus: it takes place entirely in the years when Jackie was breaking baseball's color barrier, 1946 and '47.
That's a time frame, naturally, that Rachel has often traveled back to in the decades since. Yet she said that watching the movie revived memories of things she had forgotten, things that were not portrayed in the movie and that had happened between her and her husband. Watching 42 is a different experience for Rachel than it is for anybody else on earth.
"We were staying in a house with people in Daytona during spring training, wonderful people," Rachel says. "Our bedroom was at the top of the stairs, a tiny room with just a dresser and a bed. Being from California the blatant racism that we came across every day down there, a lot of that was new to us. Jack and I heard some things I would never want to repeat. One evening we came back to the house after a really tough day. We went straight up to our room and fell onto the bed, exhausted. And then I looked at Jack and we suddenly started laughing. We couldn't stop. It all seemed so ridiculous and surreal, our situation and what was happening in our lives."
The movie also awoke in Rachel the particular sense of protectiveness she felt toward Jackie in that time -- the feelings she would get when he went out into a roiling and uncertain environment to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers and to change America for good. She loves Boseman's portrayal, especially, she says, the way he "captures the quiet dignity that Jack had even when he was under attack."
"Jack and I had known each other for five years before we got married," says Rachel. "That was extremely important because we trusted each other and it helped us to bond during that time. There was such an incredible amount of pressure, it might have driven two people apart. But it had the opposite effect on us, it pushed us together."
In 42, Rachel is portrayed by the 28-year-old actress Nicole Beharie, who, like her subject, is beautiful and strong. Only one scene shows Beharie and Boseman together in their Brooklyn apartment, yet for Rachel, that apartment -- just like the little room in Daytona, and the houses where the Robinsons and their children would live in later years -- was an indispensable place for the healing and restoration that enabled Jackie to be the man he was and for the Robinsons to lead the rich, resolute life they lived.
"Home was our place away from the world, and it was central," says Rachel. "We made a point not to talk about every negative encounter that happened. That would have been too much. We treated our home like a haven and when you come into a haven you don't want to bring in painful things. You want to cherish it. You use the haven to get yourself ready for the next day."