History is a two-way street.
Not just in the sense of the oft-repeated warning that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It's more about the way we look how at the past mirrors the present.
Watching the Oscar-winning "Lincoln," it was impossible not to make a connection between that president's righteous, arm-twisting crusade to pass a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery and the election of the nation's first black president a century and a half later.
"The Help" wasn't merely an uplifting tale of empowerment for the black maids and nannies of Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s, but an eye-opening revelation for new generations about just how pervasively ingrained and insidious racism has been throughout the history of our nation, especially when it masquerades as upper-class gentility.
Each of those films - along with a whole genre of baseball movies culminating with Brad Pitt's "Moneyball" - helped pave the way for "42," the biopic of game-changing baseball player Jackie Robinson, that put its noble message at the top of the box-office charts this week.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, this isn't a warts-and-all biography of a complicated character, but a full-throated anthem of hero worship.
The fact that it works as well as it does has less to do with Chadwick Boseman's earnest portrait of the young Brooklyn Dodger who broke baseball's color line, than with the movie's real hero, Harrison Ford, in the role of team owner Branch Rickey.
Following Clint Eastwood's lead in acting his age, the iconic Ford etches one of the most enduring profiles of courage in his storied career as the cigar-chomping, scripture-quoting "Mr. Rickey," who handpicked Jackie Robinson to rewrite American history.
He thrust the UCLA grad and World War II vet into the role because, as he explains, "He's a Methodist, I'm a Methodist, God's a Methodist."
Ford makes Rickey's homespun wit and wisdom crackle like fireworks throughout the film, leaving the audience hanging on every line, applauding the best of them. In truth, Rickey's motivations were more complex, from wanting to sell more tickets to African-Americans in ballparks where archways were still marked "Colored," to deeper matters of personal conscience.
Like "The Help," "42" not only recreates the look of the era, from the ballparks to the wardrobes, but also its invisible, deeply held bigotry beginning with Robinson's teammates. One of the film's many memorable scenes shows a young white boy accompanying his dad to the ball park, so awed by every detail of the experience that when his father starts shouting epithets at the visiting Dodger, the boy enthusiastically echoes them. That's how it works, folks.
Baseball movies are usually exercises in myth-making, and Helgeland's "42" carries on the tradition. Jackie Robinson's greatest challenge, besides the hatred he faced every time he stepped out onto the field, was "having the courage not to fight back," as Rickey instructs him early on. Instead, he does it at the plate and on-base, where his cocky, base-stealing ways rattle opposing pitchers.
One disappointment is that the film has to oversimplify Robinson's accomplishment to such an extent, it feels more like an action comic than a true story. On the other hand, focusing on the ballplayer's marriage to his bright, resilient wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie) as they take on a whole nation's racism by themselves, resonates all the way to today's White House.
And turning on CNN last weekend after seeing "42" provided far too many reminders that the racism Jackie Robinson faced has morphed, but is still an unfortunate fact of life in America, more than a half-century later.
It's hard to say whether "42's" history lesson is an inspiration, or a sad commentary on how far we haven't come. But it marks a small victory, either way.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.