The Obamas embrace history with enthusiasm for ’42’

Opinion

When President Barack Obama embraced Rachel Robinson, the 90-year-old widow of baseball Hall of Fame legend Jackie Robinson on Tuesday, he did so as a man in a unique position to relate to her  late husband’s story.

Few people get to break color barriers like Robinson did in baseball, let alone the White House, where 43 white men preceded Obama. According to a source who attended the intimate screening of the new film 42 for the cast, crew, guests, and the Robinson family in the East Wing’s private theater,  Obama admitted to getting emotional as he and Michelle Obama watched the film depiction of the Robinsons’ Odyssey through 1940s America the day before. He praised its young star, Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson in the film, which depicts the baseball legend’s rise from the Negro Leagues, to a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and ultimately, to the Dodgers ball club in 1947.

Obama rarely speaks about the historical weight of his achievement in getting elected president — he’ll add flourishes during speeches on Martin Luther King Jr. Day or at his two inaugurals, which hint at his sense of what it means to him. But he rarely drops his guard on matters of race — and when he does, as when his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was arrested by a Cambridge police officer after getting locked out of his home, or when he speculated on what his son might look like, the reaction from his political opponents — and the media — has been swift, and often damning.

Michelle Obama is less reticent on the topic — she has spoken movingly about the Jacob Philadelphia, the young son of a staffer, for whom the president bent his six-foot-plus frame down low, so the black boy could touch his hair, assuring himself that it was the same texture as his own. She has talked about the importance of sharing the “newness” of her and the president’s life and position in the White House with people — particularly children — who might not have imagined it. And she has spoken passionately about her life as a young girl from Chicago’s South Side, whose rise can be duplicated by every kid who is willing to dream.

And yet, both Obamas are keenly aware of the delicate dance required of a first black president who leads an entire country, not just the part that holds its breath with fraternal pride each time he takes a stage.

In Obama’s rise, echoes of Robinson

“There are, of course, interesting parallels between Robinson and Obama, between 42 and 44,” Georgetown professor and MSNBC contributor Michael Eric Dyson says, pointing to both men’s composure and temperament, often in the face of breathtaking hostility and opposition. “Both have blazed a path as firsts, which means that just as the eyes of the world were on Robinson, watching him for every sign of breaking or falling, seeing in his every gesture a portent of things to come for the race, they eyes of the world are similarly on Obama. They are both representative icons whose achievement lay not only in breaking barriers but in crushing the obstacles with excellence and great skill.”

The Obamas have held just a handful of White House movie screenings — but some of their choices hint at a deeply-felt understanding of what they represent, and their desire to share their experience with people who, a generation ago, might not have dreamed of entering the White House as guests — Red Tails, a biopic about the Tuskegee Airmen; or Beasts of the Southern Wild, for which the first lady invited local school kids to watch the film meet and talk to the cast, including the 9-year-old, Oscar nominated actress Quevenzhane Wallis. Mrs. Obama said of the screening, “the conversation, seeing those actors, and hearing from the father [in the film], who was a baker across the street from the audition studio, and how he went from being a baker to going to the Oscars — I mean, that’s how I think. I think, how do we connect all of that to a bunch of kids who may never even get to see that movie.”

But 42 seems to have held special resonance for the first couple.

The first lady on Tuesday extended invitations to local high school and college students, including students associated with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, for a workshop on the film prior to the private screening for the cast and guests. Students quizzed Boseman, Harrison Ford, who plays Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, and the film’s director and writer, Brian Helgeland, along with Rachel Robinson and two of her and Jackie Robinson’s children.

An emotional Michelle Obama praised Mrs. Robinson — marveling at both her impeccable looks (“she’s 90, but looks 40″ the first lady said — and it’s true) and saying Mrs. Robinson blazed a trail for her. The former Michelle Robinson — though no relation, so far as we know — said she and the president were “visibly and physically moved by the experience of the movie, of the story,” and by “the raw emotion” of the experiences depicted on screen.

“I mean, watching anyone go through what Jackie and Rachel Robinson did — the outright discrimination they experienced at every turn… from the fans in the stadium, to the airport receptionist, even some of his teammates,” the first lady said at the workshop. “You’re left asking yourself, how on earth did they do it? How did they endure the bigotry?”

It’s a question many of the president and first lady’s supporters sometimes ask about them.

Next: Obama’s careful navigation of race