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Review - '42' Is A Well-Intentioned But Watered-Down Telling Of Jackie Robinson's Story

by Zeba Blay
April 11, 2013 6:18 PM
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In 1950, United Artists released The Jackie Robinson Story, a biopic about the iconic athlete’s rise from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues, where he made history as the first black man to break the baseball color barrier. The film starred a then-31-year-old Robinson, playing a watered-down version of himself in a watered-down reenactment of the prejudices and indignities he faced as a black man in a white-dominated sport. Now, over sixty years later, writer-director Brian Helgeland presents 42, a well-intentioned, visually striking, but just as watered-down biopic that unfortunately fails to go much deeper than its predecessor.

Despite being over two hours long, the movie only chronicles a short period of Robinson’s life, focused mainly in 1947, the year baseball manager Branch Rickey (played here by a scenery chewing Harrison Ford) made history by signing the young athlete to the all-white Brooklyn Dodgers. Charismatic newcomer Chadwick Boseman is reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington (who was once attached to play Robinson in a Spike Lee joint that never got off the ground), but his and co-star Nicole Beharie’s talents go to waste on a script that is often schmaltzy and cliché, failing to delve deeper into who Robinson was outside the context of baseball.

The movie gets it right when it comes to the scenes of actual baseball playing - Boseman’s charm shines through the most in the tense, exciting moments where Robinson’s talent is so poignantly juxtaposed with the racism of those around him. And in one particularly powerful scene, he has a near breakdown after something like a ten minute, n-word laden verbal assault from the coach of an opposing team - but he regains his composure, the music swells, the crowd cheers, he turns the other cheek, steps out onto the field, and into baseball history.

42 is inspiring, but it’s also slightly reminiscent of movies like The Blind Side and Remember the Titans, films that seek to simplify racism through the context of sports, with its codes of sportsmanship and a pure sort of democracy which ensures that every man “deserves a fair shake” if he’s got the goods. Of course, it’s not that simple, and while the movie can’t very well take a pause to explicitly say that, it would have helped if it had more nuance and less formula.

We have come a long way since the days of slavery and Jim Crow. It isn’t so much the film itself as how it might be received that has the potential to be problematic. Though certainly unintentional, Helgeland’s Disney-fied approach to America’s past that paints Robinson as a saint and everyone else as either as a moustache-twirling racist or benevolent white protector strengthens the idea of a “post-racial” America where racism is an ancient relic, tied to ‘Whites Only’ signs in restaurant windows and segregated water fountains. What makes this perhaps a little problematic is that it perpetuates an idea that racism is, for lack of a better phrase, black-and-white, the sort of “the past is the past, you feel me” mentality that makes so many people unwilling to ever really engage with racism, because for them it is ostensibly over.

But the effects of those signs and water fountains of yesteryear continue to manifest themselves in insidious ways in our present. And even now, the taunts and slurs hurled at Robinson on the field decades ago echo the banana peels hurled at black soccer players like Prince Boateng and Didier Drogba today. This isn’t to take away from Robinson’s legacy and importance in the grand scheme of Civil Rights, but it’s certainly something to think about. Beneath good performances and an overly-sleek facade, 42 feels like a wasted opportunity to add something new to the Jackie Robinson story.

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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  • Harry Barnes | April 13, 2013 10:29 AMReply

    Best film of the year so far. If you're waiting for any other film, like "The Josh Gibson Story" or any others, they will never get made if this one doesn't get the support it richly deserves. It's definitely the right film made for this time period. It's not a film that brings people apart, but shows they can work together for a greater cause. Stop hating, and start congratulating. That's the problem with black people nowadays. We don't give each other credit when we're involved with something good, but always can find a way to criticize.

  • Nique | April 12, 2013 12:55 AMReply

    I will wait for the Josh Gibson story.

  • serpico | April 11, 2013 10:25 PMReply

    I didn't see the movie but I'm guessing the movie fails to show Robinson's hot headedness? From historical records I know he had a burning desire to retaliate against the racism but of course Rickey told him "not for three years". And after those first three years with Brooklyn, he went off and verbally retaliated. I love that. It's more human. If the film doesn't examine that then I don't care much to see it.

  • Funk Gumbo Radio | April 16, 2013 5:00 PM

    Hey Serpico, I just wanted to address your reason for not seeing this film. I know Robinson's baseball career pretty extensively. I was not enthused to see this film for the same reason you were reluctant to see it...would they they show Jackie's hot-headedness? And much to my surprise, they showed a very complex man who knew the weight he was carrying but never backed down. As far as his portrayal, it's accurate. The film showed all the different layers (good and bad) of this complex man. Now I can't say whether you will like the film or not but the film captured the man and ballplayer that was Jackie Robinson. Howard from Funk Gumbo Radio

  • CC | April 14, 2013 8:30 PM

    You can cut the tension with a knife. It's the bottom of the ninth inning, 1 out, one man on base and the score is 5-4 in favor of the goosenecks. CC is at the plate, the count is full... now the pitch... it's a knuckle ball... CC swings and misses.... "STRIKE THREE, YOU'RE OUT!"

    The crowd goes crazy as the next batter approaches the plate. It's the cleanup hitter # 322, Harvey "knock yourself out" Dent. He peers out to deep left center field as if willing the ball's final resting place. He waves to the belligerent crowd in a gutsy act of defiance as he steps in the batter's box.

    The pitch is on its way... SMACK-CRACK-BAM!!!... the ball meets the hard wood of the Louisville Slugger with a violent force... it's going, it's going, way back, waaaay back, it's going... it's going... IT'S GONE! IT'S A HOME RUN... S&A WINS! Harvey trots around the bases in a victor's stride fit for a king.

    Mr. Dent, you've done yourself proud with your last post. And btw, I didn't make it past 1 hour of The Blind Side. I couldn't stand the pain. Welcome to Shadow and Act.

  • HarveyDent322 | April 14, 2013 2:47 PM

    This is how I support MY opinion of 42, CC. Knock yourself out with it.

    Go to any multiplex on a Friday night and you are bound to have a choice of movies about various kinds of heroes. There are movies about action heroes, superheroes,and even antiheroes but films about real life heroes can trump all of those if done right. Real life heroes like Malcolm X, Gandhi, and Muhammad Ali among others have gotten the big screen treatment to critical and popular acclaim. Now it can be said that Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson has his moment in the sun, a worthy tribute to his place in American history. More than worthy actually because of two standout performances by a star in the making and a superstar who got his groove back.

    Post-World War II America was a time of flux in all parts of American society particularly in the African-American community. Men and women who had fought and defeated fascism in Europe and Japan were not content to go back to the same old Jim Crow status quo simply because of the color of their skin. Others of a different skin color though had more mercenary reasons driving their social consciousness. Men like Branch Rickey, El Jefe of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who wanted to get green dollars out of black hands into his team’s white pockets by taking the unprecedented step of integrating Major League Baseball.

    Finding a Black baseball player talented enough to play in the so-called big leagues was not difficult for Rickey and his brain trust because there were more than enough of them playing in the comparable Negro Leagues, but finding the right one who could tote the weight of being The First would be a little trickier. In Rickey’s words, he wanted a man strong enough not to fight back when bigoted players and fans would hurl slings and arrows at an uppity Black man with the nerve to play in their league. Jackie Robinson was made to order for the Dodgers because he was a college-educated veteran from California with an edge, as proven by his court-martial during the War for not going to the back of the bus in the segregated South more than ten years before Rosa Parks. But it still was not easy because in this world being The First never is no matter the support network one has.

    42 is a movie anchored by a murderers’ row of solid performances with the sensational Chadwick Boseman batting leadoff as the pioneering Hall of Famer. Boseman captures perfectly the frustration the real Jackie Robinson must have felt having to hold his temper in the face of the racism that came his way for not staying in the place reserved for Black people at that time. A place the furthest away from the freedom promised in this country’s sacred documents. Jackie Robinson was several things but passive wasn’t one of them and Boseman captures the internal conflict of a man who was more than willing to meet every insult in kind usually with a baseball bat to the skull but held his temper by showing the strength Rickey needed of him then at least for that ’47 season. Boseman definitely could have played Robinson as a meek, unassuming saint and the movie would have suffered greatly for it but he took the more layered route to show his character was more than just a ballplayer or a racial pioneer. Rather he portrays him as a man doing the best he could under the microscope that comes from having the hopes and dreams of his people riding on his shoulders.

    Batting behind Boseman is the immortal Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey in a performance that is truly a revelation for an actor who for the past twenty years has seemed more interested in maintaining his action hero status than working on his craft. Fordproves his acting chops are still sharp as he plays an individual who bluntly states in more than one scene that he’s about getting as many wins and as much money for his team by any means but allows his deeper, altruistic motives to shine at times behind his Methodist preacher bluster. Fans of Indiana Solo can only hope this performance signals a desire for more substantial roles in the future for Mr.Ford instead of continuing to fight aliens on horseback or battling rival archaeologists for buried treasures.

    The rest of the lineup is filled out more than ably by newbies and veterans alike such as Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, who provides the support her husband needs whether it’s with a supportive word or strategy about dealing with inside pitches. Andre Holland bats clean up as Wendell Smith, a Black reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, who is drafted by Rickey to be Jackie’s personal Boswell. He chronicles the ballplayer’s trials and tribulations while impressing upon Robinson that he’s swinging for more than just his average in the batter’s box. Christopher Meloni as Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as teammate Pee Wee Reese, as well as Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, the racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, make solid contact in their roles to show both the support and the opposition Jackie Robinson faced in 1947. Pay special attention to two young actors in small but telling roles as well. One, a little Black boy in the segregated Florida of the 1940’s who was inspired by Jackie Robinson’s example to reach higher than Jim Crow would allow back then. The second, a little white boy enjoying a ballgame on a summer day in Cincinnati whose innocence is taken away by the racism his father teaches him. The confusion in the little boy’s face is clear as a punch to the gut because it’s evident even at his young age that he knows bigotry is wrong but his father is throwing slurs so it must be right. Examples of the inspiration and the menace Number 42 represented to either side of the discriminatory status quo.

    Brian Hegeland, director and screenwriter of 42, has crafted and presented an excellent movie that shows a crucial portion of Jackie Robinson’s life. Everything from the music, the wardrobe, and the dialogue is spot on for America at that time. With another baseball season starting a new movie about Jackie Robinson’s life is more than timely. It’s an account of historical figures that presents them as the flesh and blood individuals they were who managed to do the right thing in spite of the entrenched obstacles in their path. To further strangle a baseball metaphor, 42 hits for the cycle; good story, great performances, amazing special effects, and a true respect for the subject matter combine to create an exceptional motion picture about a real-life American hero.

    Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?

  • CC | April 12, 2013 7:53 PM

    No-no Harvey, that was not the crux of my disagreement, but I'll follow your lead. I mean, you implied that The Blind Side was not a well made movie that didn't deserve its accolades, so I think it's incumbent upon YOU to support YOUR opinion. Because millions will/have praised the film. And, more importantly, you seem to be in the minority in respect to "42", so what are we to think of your ability to assess a quality film?

    So come on man, tell us the particulars of why this Jackie Robinson film is superior to The Blind Side and Remember The Titans?

  • HarveyDent322 | April 12, 2013 1:59 PM

    If you're coming at me defending THE BLIND SIDE then you've already lost this debate.

  • CC | April 12, 2013 10:11 AM

    Mr. Dent, if you were Richard Dent ( The former American football defensive end, who played primarily for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League and MVP of Super Bowl XX who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame ) I'd be hesitant to disagree -- because he knows football. However Harvey, since we're discussing movies, I have to respectfully disagree.

    First, although many in the African American community had "problems" with The Blindside, it was a good movie. Granted, some define it as a "white savior" film, but is "42" really any different?

    Well, having read all of Zeba's reviews (posted on S&A) I grown to respect her "opinion", so I have to consider Branch Rickey's motives, place in history and Zeba's words: Branch Rickey (played here by a scenery chewing Harrison Ford) made history by signing the young athlete to the all-white Brooklyn Dodgers.

    Hmmm... "scenery chewing"? Was the film focused on Jackie Robinson or the crusty, but "good intentioned" white guy? I mean, what did we learn about Mr. Robinson that we didn't already know?

    In reference to "sappiness", I suppose that's purely subjective, but where there is smoke there IS fire. Most of the reviews I've read are saying the same thing (i.e, mushy, corny, maudlin, cheesy, good-intentions-but, etc). But who really expected anything different? Heck, maybe this film is playing to the same crowd who enjoyed Red Tails? You know, that too was a mushy mess of a film, told through the lens of white folks, but hey, some ate it up like as if it was fresh hot Sunday morning biscuits.

    Btw, to imply "42" is anywhere in the league The Hurricane is a cardinal sin.

  • HarveyDent322 | April 12, 2013 4:23 AM

    The movie touched on Jack's temper four times that I remember off the top of my head and while I liked it much more than Zeba did I didn't pick up on the overload of sappiness. In the first scene of the movie, Branch Rickey as played by Harrison Ford comes right out and says in so many words he wants to get those n-word pennies for his team as well as win with conducting a social experiment far down on the list. The slurs were accurate of the time with almost all the white characters on screen having to confront their prejudices while Chad Boseman portrayed a Jackie Robinson who came across as ready to break a bat on a fool's head if anyone came at him crazy. Nichole Beharie was the level-headed saint in this movie as his wife, Rachel, but I will highly recommend this movie to anyone who thinks mistakenly it's all sweetness and light. Is it as good as THE HURRICANE? No, but it's miles better than THE BLINDSIDE or REMEMBER THE TITANS.

  • getthesenets | April 11, 2013 9:05 PMReply

    Do you think the ones making the promotional decisions understand the double meaning(s) of the jay z lyrics they are NOW using in the trailer

    I jack I rob I send/
    I am jac-kie rob-in-son
    Except when I run base/
    I dodge the pen/

    Robinson was such a dignified man...and thinly veiled drug dealing references in trailer for his bio is in such poor taste.

  • Stan | April 11, 2013 8:29 PMReply

    Loved the movie. Great story and Great acting. Happy it's getting good reviews.

  • Carlton | April 11, 2013 7:31 PMReply

    Agreed. I saw it last night and it was well acted...but super sappy. The use of little boys (hopeful one/ racist one) was nauseating.

  • Mark & Darla | April 11, 2013 8:37 PM

    Sappy, hate snappiness movie, probably why I never took the time to watch E.T.

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