In his new film 42, writer-director Brian Helgeland accomplishes what Spike Lee and Robert Redford could not—bring the story of Jackie Robinson to the big screen. The film recounts Robinson becoming the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. It follows Robinson from his days in the Negro Leagues to the end of his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
For a filmmaker, Robinson’s story is shooting fish in a barrel, which makes one wonder why it has taken so long to get it off the ground. A good storyteller can make a boring story engaging. Robinson’s story is so compelling, one would have to be a horribly deficient filmmaker to muck it up. 42 is an entertaining, well-acted, and competent film, worth the price of admission. The baseball scenes are especially wonderful to watch. One feels the speed of pitches and we can actually see the movement on a curve ball. The film makes sure that the majority of famous events are retold, such as the time when Dodgers president Branch Rickey verbally berated Robinson with racial epithets in order to prepare him for the heckling and abuse he would receive for breaking the color barrier. Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson with a quiet dignity, always observing and wisely discerning when to take a risk. Harrison Ford gives the best performance of the film and his best performance in many years as Rickey. It is a joy to watch Ford take on a character. Some may find his acting a bit hammy and over the top, but from all accounts, Rickey was an over the top personality.
42 is not, however, a very complex look at the events it portrays. It does more to honor the legend of Jackie Robinson than the man Jackie Robinson. We see Robinson push back against Jim Crow laws during his time with the Kansas City Monarchs. We see him take Rickey’s challenge to not fight back during his stint in triple-A and in his rookie season in 1947. We see how his character and on-field success win over his teammates who had petitioned to not play with an African-American, the skeptical white press, and the fans. But we do not see Robinson or his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie) change. All of the growth belongs to white characters and their growth is largely predictable. It seems no racist or prejudiced comment goes unrebuked by some more enlightened character.
Robinson’s commitment to the cause and his race was heroic, but certainly the man must have changed through enduring such abuse. Aside from a couple of powerfully acted scenes, we witness little of how the weight of his endeavor affected Robinson. In interviews elsewhere, Rachel Robinson tells of how Jackie’s hair fell out in clumps during his rookie season—why not show that? Many close to Robinson believe that the stress of those first few years in the Majors was so great that it contributed to his early death at the age of 53. Further, for a man so committed to civil rights and improving the lives of other African-Americans, we rarely see him engage his community outside a relationship with the reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland). Not only do we miss how Robinson changed, we neither see how the African-American community was affected by baseball’s integration. White reporters complain in the film that African-Americans will take jobs away from white players, but that was only half the story. While Robinson received the support of the majority of African-Americans, there were some who saw the writing on the wall. If the Major Leagues were to truly integrate, that would mean the death of the Negro Leagues, which at the time was one of the largest and most successful black-run businesses in America. A few more scenes within the black community showing both the support they gave Robinson as well as dealing with the change he brought would have gone a long way.
In that famous meeting with Rickey in which Robinson agreed to not fight back, we see a truncated version of the agreement. Robinson was indeed known for his temper, so Rickey only asked him to keep quiet for the first year. After that, he was free to express himself. And after 1947 he did pressure his teammates, argue with umpires, get in opponents faces. What 42 gives us is the saintly, quiet, pure African-American that we (white people) want Robinson to be. It is a Robinson with whom comfort is easy. We can marvel at his courage and longsuffering, but he does not challenge us. For being the main character, Robinson speaks very little. As an audience we get to project whatever feelings and thoughts onto him that we want. This is a disservice to a deeply principled and opinionated man. Thankfully the film does not shy away from the fact that both Robinson and Rickey worked together out of their shared Christian convictions. At the same time, by ending in 1947, we do not see how Robinson worked in the Civil Rights movement, nor his post-retirement campaigns to bring African-Americans into manager and front-office positions among MLB teams. At the twenty-fifth anniversary of his debut, Robinson accepted an award and offered a stinging critique of MLB when he said , “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”
With 42 we get an easy racism to hate. We (white viewers, especially) can feel good that we are against the overt exclusionary racism Robinson faced. We know we would never heckle a person of color as Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) does—this powerful scene testifying to Robinson’s perseverance is intentionally painful and shocking to watch. The movies 42 most closely resembles in tone and depth are Boaz Yankin’s Remember the Titans and Tate Taylor’s The Help, both of which also had strong acting playing out rather thin and easily digestible stories of racism from years ago. Like 42, the characters that actually grow in those films are the white characters. The black characters are largely enlightened and noble. These entertaining films let us feel good about ourselves because we can see what the obtuse racists cannot, but they never challenge us to think about how racism might still be alive today and how we might be participants in it.
Despite my criticisms of the film’s portrayal of racism, I enjoyed 42 quite a bit. The screenplay is quick and entertaining. The performances are skillfully given. The action is engrossing. But 42 is ultimately a thin picture of Robinson the man because his campaign against racism did not end with the Dodgers winning the National League pennant in 1947. He spent his life working to better the lives of those experiencing oppression, both the overt and subtle kind. That is a rich and complex story also worth telling.