“What you gonna do if one of these pitchers throws for your head?” asks a reporter to Jackie Robinson at his first spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Thus summarizes Jackie Robinson’s approach as he tried to prove a black man did, in fact, belong in Major League Baseball. People will heckle you, but you can’t heckle back. People will try to hurt you, but you can’t fight back. People will say you don’t belong. Prove–with your play only–that you do.
Sadly, 42, released last Friday, misses most of this struggle. The film, starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, provides a glimpse of the mental and emotional difficulties facing Robinson throughout his turbulent 1947 season. But it largely sidesteps most of the drama, showing Robinson’s success as an inevitability rather than a byproduct of courage and remarkable poise under unimaginable stress.
Robinson asked Branch Rickey in 1945 “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” to which Rickey famously replied “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
The exchange is dramatized early in 42, setting the tone for the difficulties Robinson will face as he simultaneously adjusts to the highest level of professional baseball and the highest level of bigotry in the sport. The film depicts many of these difficulties on the screen: taunting by a racist manager, spiking by a opposing player, and random acts of discrimination like being refused hotel reservations in Philadelphia.
But the movie shows little of Robinson’s internal struggle. In one poignant scene, Jackie breaks down in the tunnel of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park after enduring a combination of racist taunts and poor on-field performance. This scene was Boseman’s best acting and it led to a great scene between Robinson and Rickey where the two lean on each other for support, reminding the audience that this is hard. Changing baseball, and the world, is not supposed to be easy. There will be strikeouts and racist assholes threatened by your resolve.
Unfortunately, this scene stands alone. The remainder of the movie retreats to a generic Hollywood Inspirational Sports Movie. It’s not a bad Inspirational Sports Movie; it’s just a missed opportunity. The Inspirational Sports Movie has become a sub-industry in Hollywood–call it the Remember the Titans formula. Show the triumph of the human spirit without making the audience really question the aspect of humanity necessitating the triumph in the first place.
42 has its villians, of course. Ben Chapman–the racist opponent. Dixie Walker, Kirby Higbe, and Eddie Stanky–the prejudiced teammates, one of whom, Stanky, “reforms” and defends his teammate during a particularly difficult game. The movie’s racists are portrayed at face value with no attempt to explain their motivations or source of hatred. In one scene, Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher holds a midnight meeting to drop an ultimatum on Robinson’s mutinous white teammates–accept Robinson as a teammate or find a new job. One Dodger protests, telling Durocher “I have a hardware store back home”–the implication being that playing with a black teammate would cost the player financially by driving away racist customers. This is a fascinating dynamic, a player motivated more by selfish financial interests rather than real internal hatred (or perhaps using his financial interests as a cover for real hatred). But movie doesn’t delve into the subject further, causing the viewer to question why the director included the line in the first place.
In another scene, Rickey dresses down Robinson’s minor league manager, Clay Hopper, at Dodgers training camp in 1946, telling him he doesn’t care that Hopper grew up in Mississippi around prejudice. He is to treat Robinson like every other player. Hopper immediately complies with his boss’s instructions by shouting encouraging words to Jackie after a fine play. Did Hopper realize his mistake? Or did he just bury his prejudice and comply to save his job?
The film devotes a great deal of energy and screen time to Rachel Robinson, the still-living widow of Jackie, who was reportedly heavily involved with the production of the movie. This, itself, was a good choice by the film’s producers, but the marriage is portrayed at a superficial level. Rachel’s character is reduced to soft words of encouragement between games and scowls in the stands while her husband is serenaded by boos. Apparently, the long absences and difficulties on the field in 1947 season added no strain to their relationship. The producers do win points, however, for avoiding the Adrian Pennino “you can’t do it” stereotype.
Aside from Robinson’s breakdown in the tunnel in Philadelphia, there are several other memorable scenes in the film. In one, Dodgers shortstop and team leader Pee Wee Reese reports to Rickey’s office to express discomfort in receiving a hate letter from back home in Kentucky. Rickey quickly puts the situation in perspective for Reese by showing him the volume of hate mail sent to Robinson–some of which include death threats to his infant son. This scene preludes another where Reese throws his arm around Robinson in Reese’s hometown of Cincinnati (seen above) to demonstrate his support and acceptance of his black teammate. The scene contains a clever verbal exchange about the Civil War–showing that the two men, indeed, came from different places but are now in the same place.
The aesthetics of the movie are very well done. The movie’s CGI masterfully recreates Ebbets Field and other long-gone jewels of baseball like Forbes Field and Shibe Park. The director recreates the feel of 1940’s Spring Training in both Daytona, Florida and Panama City, Panama. The look and feel of the baseball games are the best I’ve ever seen. The common sense decision to cast current and former baseball players adds authenticity to the baseball action scenes. Boseman is convincing as an elite athlete and Harrison Ford overcomes his iconic status to effectively portray Rickey, a key character necessary to tell the Robinson story. Finally, John C. McGinley nails a Red Barber impersonation–a real treat for fans of the game’s history.
42 works as a baseball movie. And it works a family movie, effectively telling an inspirational, but true, story. 42 also appears to be faithful to the facts, refusing to embellish the story. The Jackie Robinson story needs no embellishing. The producers should get credit for refusing to delete the N-word from the script as many movies choose to do. Children should see prejudice and hatred in its natural state.
42 does a fine job showing Jackie Robinson’s story. It just doesn’t make us feel it.