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.