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42: A Conversation Between Odie Henderson and Steven Boone

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by Steven Boone and Odie Henderson
April 12, 2013 10:48 AM
5 Comments
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Odie Henderson: Well, Mr. Boone, once again, we're engaging in a Black Man Talk. After American Gangstas, Tyler Perry, and Django Unchained, we're now setting our sights on the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. This time, however, the talk is being conducted live via Internet Chat. Let's get this party started.

Steven Boone:  Odie, among other great things, you invented the term "lookeehere moment." You never gave me a precise definition, just plenty of illustrative anecdotes, but I'll take a crack at it: The lookeehere moment is that instance in which a stressed-out African-American male succumbs to pressures of (usually coded, passive-aggressive) racism and... snaps. 42 felt like a suspense thriller based around whether or when Jackie Robinson is going to have a colossal lookeehere moment. "Now, lookeehere, umpire....!" What do you think?

Odie: That's a good definition of the lookeehere. If I were to venture a definition, I'd say it's the Black version of the moment where Popeye finally decides to stop taking shit and eat that can of spinach. I wondered if 42 would allow Robinson to have his lookeehere moment, or if it was going to treat his abuse as some form of Noble Negritude.

Steven:  Exactly.

Odie:  I should note that the real Robinson does NOT get a moment of genuine anger in The Jackie Robinson Story, the 1950 version of the timeframe 42 covers. I'd like to think it was because Robinson was not a seasoned actor, but it's probably because that moment would have been too realistic for White audiences to deal with back in the halcyon days of Father Knows Best.

Steven: Absolutely. They weren't even quite ready for Sidney Poitier. (Btw, A Patch of Blue employs similar suspense around the prospect of miscegenation. That movie's kissing scene stopped my heart.)

Well, I think it's safe to say we both dug this movie, but why? It is so damn corny. It seems too cornball for even the likes of Ron Howard and Ed "ante up and kick in" Zwick. Why does this film work so well?

Odie: Chris Rock once said that Black folks will know we've truly overcome when we're allowed to fuck up just like White folks do. That is, the individual will get blamed rather than the entire race. Cinematically, I think we'll know when a Black character is given a corny-ass, pure Americana treatment in a biopic.


Watching 42, I felt that this was our very own cornpone treatment—and dare I say those corny movies like Pride of the Yankees are damned effective--and I loved it for that reason. We may not have overcome on the screen, but for a brief moment, I saw the old movies I loved get colorized. Finally, a bone of equality thrown our way. The love story is corny, the sports movie is corny, the gruff mentor is a cliché, etc. This can describe the majority of movies of this ilk.

And those exact reasons are why I love movies like this. We're asked to love and suffer with Jackie because he wants the American Dream, which is here symbolized by Baseball. Not because pursuing the dream is a privilege, but because it's a right.

Steven:  I know what you mean, re: the purposeful corniness. George Lucas employed some of that rationale for his long-gestating film about the Tuskeegee Airmen, Red Tails. He said it was the kind of film you'd see all the time during Ho'wood's Golden Era, just, as you put it, colorized.

Odie: It's about damn time. Those movies endure.

Steven:  I think Tyler Perry, for better or worse, is doing some of that work, too.

Odie:  Perry's problem, as we've discussed before, is that he's stapled to Jesus. If he had the chops of Cecil B. DeMille, he could corner the market on Biblical epics.

Steven: I could see him doing St. Louis Blues. I'll never forget that scene where Nat King Cole as Handy regains his sight at the keyboard, thanks to his faith in Jesus. (If I'm remembering it right.)

Odie: Perry wouldn't be able to resist having Madea on top of Nat's piano singing "Makin' Whoopee."


Steven: Absolutely.

Odie: Were you surprised by the time devoted to the love story in this film? Ruby Dee played Robinson's wife, Rachel, in The Jackie Robinson Story, and while she wasn't completely ignored, I felt Brian Helgeland wanted to give equal time to the struggle and the strength behind it. The two leads (Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie) have amazing chemistry. I loved the looks they gave each other. This is the most credible Black romance I've seen in years.

Steven: Yes, it was like a tonic. Black love is so toxic in American mainstream movies. The fact that I was so shocked to see a Black couple so effortlessly devoted to each other onscreen is sad. I see it in real life. Why have I so rarely seen it up there on the screen?


Odie: I think it still terrifies some viewers. We're too conditioned to onscreen broken families, trifling men and gold diggers. Regular Black love is "unrealistic," to use a word I've heard regarding the Robinsons' relationship in this film.

Steven:  Well, you know me. I see a perfectly correlative relationship between Ho'wood history and American street reality. We have been living out the images of ourselves for a long time. Helgeland is doing a lot of triage on that there.

His script is quietly subversive in ways similar to Mann's Ali.

Odie: The scene I can't get out of my head is when Alan Tudyk's Ben Chapman (the coach of the Phillies) keeps taunting Robinson at the plate. Brian Helgeland lets that play out for an eternity, with Tudyk saying "nigger" enough times to earn him a lifetime contract at Death Row Records. Tudyk sings it, plays on the word, does a stand-up routine with racist Black jokes, practically. He got on my nerves so much I was ready for a lookeehere moment. Helgeland plays on that tension, and then Rachel Robinson says, "Look at me. Please look at me." She is telepathically willing Jackie to turn to his soulmate, to lean on her for strength.

Steven: It's fucking beautiful.

I saw you rocking in your seat during Tudyk’s taunting.

Odie: Oh, had I been in less polite company, I would have yelled out "KICK HIS ASS, JACKIE!" The Warner Bros. logo would have fallen off the screening room door.


Steven: Hahaha. I do wish, as I shout-whispered to you in the screening room, that Steven Spielberg had directed Helgeland's crackerjack script. But it would have been TOO overpowering. Or Sam Raimi (whose baseball scenes in For Love of the Game snap, crackle, and pop). But Helgeland does a decent Spielberg imitation, that creeping camera, the shafts of light.

Odie:  The cinematography does an excellent job of setting mood with light and shadow. Don Burgess' lighting brings us closer to the internal acting being done by Boseman—you can see him working out his game plan/side hustle at all times. Unfortunately, that damn score by Mark Isham overshadows some finely underplayed moments. In addition to Spielberg, Helgeland is also channeling Barry Levinson, whose The Natural is clearly one of his influences. Baseball is like church, and most baseball movies aim to give some form of religious experience. Randy Newman's score in that film is beautiful and just as bombastic as Isham's, but is applied with a smaller trowel.

Steven:  Agreed. If the studio has any mercy, they should at least release a cut of the film on Blu-ray minus the score. I guarantee you, this is far more intense and poetic film without that absolutely unnecessary weep music.

Odie: I liked what you said about the score being "more oppressive than Jim Crow."

Steven: At least during Jim Crow there was some variety.


But, back to that almost-lookeehere moment on the field. Helgeland doesn't just stop there. He follows Jackie into the clubhouse hallway, where he has a private breakdown. The residual sunlight coming down from the field is eerie, heavenly, theatrical. It's a beautiful theatrical moment, and then Harrison Ford steps in, as Jackie's mentor, and makes it iconic. This is like the Angels in America of racism, for that moment.

Odie: The claustrophobic staging is a wise choice. The narrow proximity of the hallway walls juxtaposed against the sunlight, that literal light at the end of the tunnel. Ford steps in, and rather than turn this into some kind of "Great White Father" moment, Helgeland's script lets Robinson have the first and last words. "NO!" he immediately tells Rickey as he tries to approach him. 42 lets him have this moment without immediate response from his boss.

Speaking of Indiana Jones, Mr. Ford turns in an excellent supporting performance here. I bought his Branch Rickey, and even more so, how the film uses him almost as a reverse Sidekick Negro. This is Branch Rickey's story too, but rather than depict him as some saint passing out crumbs of bread to the cullud folks, it represents him as a man whose distaste for injustice ran parallel to his business acumen. The Sidekick Negro teaches the White characters Soul™ to help them loosen up. Branch Rickey does the opposite, teaching Robinson to tighten up by harnessing the power of the lookeehere moment into a vengeful vanquishing on the field of sports battle. As Black Bart says in Blazing Saddles, "Once you establish yo'self, they got to accept you."

Steven:  Yes, Branch Rickey here is no Father, just a friend. He starts off invoking the power of the green, like Oskar Schindler, but he doesn't proceed down the typical savior path. Helgeland is careful to make it clear that Rickey is only doing what everybody should be doing, and which he failed to do out of fear when he was younger: Play fair. The movie's white male characters are fun to watch. They're all wrestling with their beliefs and trying to figure out what a man is in this new context. They are starting to see that siding with racists is basically toadying for bullies.

Odie:  Helgeland clearly has no time for the systemic idiocy of the Brooklyn Dodgers teammates' racism. The speech he gives to Christopher Meloni (one of my favorite actors) is a wicked slap in the face. Meloni tells his players that Jackie's the first one--and not the last. They're coming, they're good, and since they haven't been lulled into a comfortable, assumed position of privilege, they're HUNGRY. They're coming, and they're better than you lazy bums are, so I'd be worried about being good enough to win rather than your teammate's skin color.

That was an "Odie woulda shouted AMEN in the Ghetto Theater" moment.

Steven:  A lot of this movie's charm and power comes from small moments between Jackie and his teammates. These aren't extensively drawn characters, but they are so well cast, seeming not at all like actors slipping on the shoes of historical figures. My favorite is Lucas Black, the kid from Sling Blade, as Pee Wee Reese. Black is one of the most likeable American screen actors we rarely see. He's perfect to play the one guy brave enough to embrace Jackie in front of a hostile, racist crowd. That moment, and an earlier moment where another teammate simply patted Jackie on the shoulder, sucker-punched me with emotion.

Odie:  The film treats these moments with a subtle beauty (at least until Mark Isham shows up with that hyperactive orchestra). I agree the team is well cast, with Hamish Linklater, the brother from The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Lucas Black as stand-outs. All the actors make credible ballplayers, actually. Helgeland puts us right into the action, and his mythic camera angles of Robinson stealing and sliding into bases are suitably reverential.

Lest we forget Andre Holland, who plays real-life Black sportswriter Wendell Smith. Helgeland botches his early narration by having him use "African-American" (Black folks in 1947 would have asked "What the hell is that?"), but he makes a good sidekick for Robinson. Having Robinson relate to both Black and White characters was so refreshing I wanted to cry. Equal time is given to both worlds, something that should be normal in movies but rarely is.

Steven: The exchanges between Holland and Robinson seemed so lifeless to me, though. The tensions and sympathies were there in the script, I feel, but their moments together were where I definitely felt the need for a post-1968 sensibility guiding the execution. And Rickey's sidekick was such a stock hyperventilating nerd that I imagine even Smithers from The Simpsons would be like, "Goddamn. Man up!"

 
Odie: I'm with you on Rickey's bespectacled worrywort of a sidekick. But I disagree about Smith and Robinson simply because Smith gives 42 one of its themes when he tells Robinson to be prepared, to see that slow pitch coming. Granted, their dialogue would have benefitted from being punched up, but I guess I accepted it for what it was.

Steven: As for Helgeland's direction: He's got some great instincts, but—and I know I'm being a spoiled backseat driver here—a truly dynamic scene-maker like Spielberg would have choreographed the shit out of the "nigger nigger" scene and the fanboys-chase-the-train scene. Helgeland, like Levinson, is more of a screenwriter, leaning on world-class cinematographers to make scenes look good but not naturally fluent the way a Spielberg or a Zemeckis would be. The tradeoff is that those cats probably would have softened certain blows that Helgeland strikes without restraint. They would have cut out a few of those "niggers."


Odie:  That train scene, with the two children chasing after their hero's train as he departs, would have been a home run off Spielberg's bat. Maybe I impressed more of my own feelings here, but the look in that kid's eyes after Robinson hands him the ball choked me up. I knew what that felt like; it felt like raindrops hitting the earth after a long drought. You could almost see that kid thinking "I too can be a baseball player!" Or even better yet, "I could be President of the United States." Thank God the kid in that scene eventually became a baseball player instead! Had he been dreaming of the Presidency, that scene would have been followed by some White kids beating him over the head with the fake Presidential seal he glued to his fake podium!

Steven: Oh hell yeah. This movie's intent is clear in that scene: to show black kids something different. It doesn't have to be slick, clever, eye-popping--just show black kids what it's like to have a dream; to meet a hero who embodies that dream; to pursue it without a self-defeating attitude and to make it. We have been drowning in fatalism for 50 years.

This film is calculated to endure. Also, to get heavy rotation in the schools. What you said about the fake podium is actually pretty sad. Because it's true. This country we live in is haunted by millions of broken dreams, so many of them black.

Odie: I'm hoping to see more correctives like this, and from minority artists telling stories of THEIR dreams.

To close out: As you know,  I'm a huge fan of Jackie Robinson. He broke the minor league color barrier in my hometown of Jersey City, on a field I got to play on decades later. As a little hoodrat, I didn't think anything of importance happened in my 'hood, but within walking distance, a hero who looked like me did something profound. You want to talk about the notion of believing one could do anything? I got that notion after I learned about Jackie Robinson's Royals game against the Jersey City Giants. I wasn't around when they erected that statue of Robinson down at Roosevelt Stadium, but I went to see the unveiling of the Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson down at Coney Island. Considering that the last time I was in Coney Island, I got peed on AND my head busted open (both on rides, I should add), revisiting the joint could only have happened for something as emotionally big for me as Jackie Robinson.

Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Hentai Lab.

A globetrotting computer programmer by trade and movie lover by hobby, Odie Henderson has contributed to Slant Magazine's The House Next Door since 2006. Additionally, his work has appeared at Movies Without Pity (2008) and numerous other sites. He currently runs the blog Tales of Odienary Madness.

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5 Comments

  • Jodie Pessolano | April 16, 2013 4:50 AMReply

    You guys hit the nail on so much. I just enjoyed a straight-forward telling of an inspiring story. The conversion of the racists on the Dodgers, the telling of the love story between Jackie and Rachel, and the way the film makes you cheer out loud for Jackie and the Dodgers (heck, for the 1st time I rooted against my Phillies). Best of all though was that scene in the clubhouse hallway where Jackie loses it, and Rickey reminds him that there is someone who knows what he's going through - Someone who experienced 40 days of it and bore it to a cross.

  • Steven Boone | April 14, 2013 10:56 AMReply

    Odie, how could I forget "God's a Methodist," one of the best laugh lines in the flick? You're right, the film does give as much of a nod toward the religious aspect of Jackie's and Rickey's resolve as such a mainstream film could without mucking it up--and without messing up its chances of playing far and wide.

  • A. Campbell | April 12, 2013 11:38 AMReply

    Thanks for this, great perspective. One thing I think you missed- what about the religious faith that inspired both Rickey & Robinson, that was left out of the movie entirely? (There's a good USA Today story on it, by Eric Metaxas, but I can't link to it here.)

    When it comes to black people (and southerners) in mainstream culture, religion is treated in a patronizing way: "Oh, that's just how they are." Is it better, then, to ignore it entirely?

    I understand how a filmmaker (and the funders) might shy away from a depiction of religion, but it seems particularly cowardly not to respect the faith that both men claimed and which inspired them to such great risk and restraint.

  • Odie Henderson | April 12, 2013 6:04 PM

    Actually, Ford does mention religion several times in the film. He says "I'm a Methodist, Jackie's a Methodist, God's a Methodist." It's there slightly, and it's not done in a patronizing way. I suppose that's all one can ask for without Hollywood messing that up.

  • Steven Boone | April 12, 2013 12:17 PM

    Excellent point, Campbell. Ho'wood tends to be interested in the black church only when there's a sassy gospel choir or a fire-breathing preacher to add some spectacle. I would have loved to see the religious aspect of Rickey and Robinson's relationship. And I would love to see a fiction film that considers the people attached to the faith as attentively as the documentary "Say Amen, Somebody." http://youtu.be/OyPWiBmJ3x4

    That said, this film is the Classics Illustrated version of Robinson's story. I'd be surprised if the creators didn't have in mind for the film a long, uncontroversial afterlife in public school curricula.

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