WASHINGTON — Jackie Robinson’s story hits close to home for Watkins Mill High School senior varsity baseball captain Brandon Roberts.
So a visit to the White House Tuesday for an interactive teaching event with First Lady Michelle Obama and the stars of the new Jackie Robinson biopic, “42,” was especially poignant.
“I love the game of baseball. It’s always been in my life… and the film really does inspire me to play as hard as I can and keep at it and never give up,” Roberts, 18, said after the event.
Students were invited to the White House for a screening of the new film to be released April 12 about the first black player in Major League Baseball. Robinson endured blatant racism, often in the form of name-calling and physical harm, as he built a record-breaking baseball career.
Obama said that she and the president were moved by the film and that they hoped to expose students to the film’s message of overcoming adversity. In February, the first lady held a similar interactive workshop on the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
The group of nearly 80 students came from Watkins Mill, Thurgood Marshall Academy in the District, T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., Amino Jackie Robinson Charter High School in Los Angeles as well as college-level Jackie Robinson Scholars.
Following the screening, they attended a Q-and-A with Robinson’s 90-year-old widow Rachel Robinson; the film’s Director Brian Helgeland; actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson in the film; and Harrison Ford, who plays Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey.
Obama offered words of encouragement for the participating students.
“This isn’t just about watching a wonderful movie about an important moment in history, this is about helping all of you believe that you can write your own history,” she said.
“The first step in greatness is just using your voice, just knowing that whatever question, whatever thought, whatever ideas that you have have meaning and relevance in the world,” she added.
Those words motivated Watkins Mill senior varsity softball captain Bethel Etta, 18, to ask Rachel Robinson about her role in the making of the film. The chance to talk to the baseball hero’s wife in person was inspiring for Etta.
“The main theme I got from today’s visit is about the value of perseverance…and don’t let obstacles get in your way of reaching your full potential,” Etta said. “I think you could say the cliché, ‘Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.’”
Ford and Boseman spoke about the challenges of playing iconic characters, while director Helgeland discussed the research required for an accurate retelling of history. The youthful nonagenarian Rachel Robinson, who consulted on the film, frequently chimed in to bring her husband’s story to life.
Watkins Mill High School Principal Scott Murphy said his school was invited to the workshop at the White House late last week and they were eager to accept. Murphy said that as a local, diverse school the opportunity was an ideal fit.
“To be able to share this experience with students is probably one of the most meaningful experiences of my career…to be a part of an amazing story in American history,” Murphy said.
“I think that just even listening to the kids on the bus ride home, this is one of those experiences that they will remember and cherish and tell stories about forever,” he said.
Another senior varsity softball captain Jennifer Wright, 17, said she expects to value the experience for a long time.
Simply being in the White House made the experience memorable, “but being able to hear from Mrs. Robinson, and watching the video, it was really inspirational,” she said. “And it made me believe I can do whatever I put my mind to.”