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The Bummer of '42'

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Friday, Apr 12, 2013
Race is always handled awkwardly and obviously in film. The latest on the legacy of Jackie Robinson is no exception.
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42

Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, Alan Tudyk, T.R. Knight, John C. McGinley

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 12 Apr 2013 (General release); 2013)

Racism is an ugly, ugly thing. There is no excuse for it, no way to argue out of its sickening sensibility. Time and temperament can change. So can people and perspective. But to make rash, ridiculous decisions based on skin tone, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or any other superficial stricture is the most mindless of judgment calls, and to attempt to defend such dumbness is the height of hopelessness. People should be based on who they are as human beings, not predetermined misread stereotypes. And yet we are currently embroiled in a clash over same sex marriage, only fifty years removed from a time when “colored” folk had to use segregated social facilities - if they were allowed in at all.
  
This is the world that Jackie Robinson was thrown into. A college educated, four sport letterman at UCLA, he was handpicked by Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey to become the first African American baseball player on a professional major league team (though there was an active, and quite popular, Negro League at the time). Robinson knew he would face unbridled hatred from those already ensconced in the game, but according to the new biopic by white filmmaker Brian Helgelund (LA Confidential, Mystic River) , he won the job on a single requirement: not that he be brave enough to stand up for himself, but to be courageous enough to walk away when such vitriol came his way.


It’s a profound scene, played as such by Oscar shoe-in Harrison Ford (against type and terrific as Rickey) and TV actor Chadwick Boseman (as Robinson). In fact, most of 42 is just that - a testament to a true American hero. No dirt. No tabloid tattletales. No attempt to marginalize or dimensionalize the man. Instead, Hegelund sits on iconography, allowing any argument or explanation to sit squarely between the subject matter and his symbolism. A perfect example of how this writer/director tackles the 800 pound elephant at Ebbets Field is during a game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. Their manager, a throw-back-woods redneck dofus named Ben Chapman (a well respected baseball figure of the era, until…) decides that the best way to throw Robinson off his game is to get under this skin, literally.


What follows is a good eight minutes of racial epithets, delivered with dedication by actor Alan Tudyk. Calling Robinson every slur he can recount, the purpose appears tri-fold. First, he wants to make the rising star stumble. He also hopes to help his team by showing his personal, pro-segregation conviction. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Chapman wants to see Robinson riled up. Not necessarily to quit, mind you, but to lash out, to take the frustration of being marginalized and demoralized in public out in an equally demonstrative manner. As Rickey points out, early on, the press won’t mention that Chapman instigated this, or that his language was abusive and uncalled for. No, everyone will look at Robinson and assumed he couldn’t handle the stress. Even worse, he will turn into a perfect excuse to keep his race out of the game.


It’s a valid consideration, but also a disingenuous one. The main problem put forth by 42 is that Robinson, no matter his make up or talent, had to tolerate hate in order to overcome it. It’s the same nonviolent dicta used by others later on in the Civil Rights struggle and while valid at the time, it becomes a supremely frustrating facet of the film. Time and time again, Robinson has to take tirades from people who, today, would be talked down by any number of regular passersby. Even worse, there is little comeuppance for this bigots, save for scenes meant to show just how stupid (or competitively inconsequential) they really are. By focusing solely on the Dodgers run to the 1949 pennant, the movie removes much of the context in the Hall of Famers life.


Instead, like most Hollywood movies, racism is reduced to a plotpoint, a shit pie served to a horrifically biased socialite (ala The Help) or the set-up for a humorous sendoff (you name it). We never get the kind of kinetic critique that someone like Spike Lee offers (as in Do the Right Thing) nor is there anything beyond the “time and place” excuse for such swill. It’s as if the filmmakers figured that audiences didn’t need any subtext and just came out swinging. It’s the safe road, the path mostly walked by a medium that would love to erase its own horrific acts of prejudice in the pre-‘70s eras. Does it surprise anyone that an industry which supported Stepin Fetchit and Amos and Andy would want discrimination reduced to the back burner?


Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but the fact remains that 42 is less a life history than a history lesson. It’s a pat and polished way of presenting Robinson to a generation who knows of him, but not much more than that. We don’t see him grow into a sports legend, never see the pre-Dodgers moments when he tried out for the Boston Red Sox. His life after baseball is never even mentioned, save for his World Series win and his Hall of Fame induction. Everything is about that moment, that seminal social statement where Robinson went from regular guy to savior…with cash as everyone’s Higher Power. Even Rickey makes his motives clear. “Money’s not black or white,” he grins, “It’s green!”


Today, oddly enough, every other sport has benefited from what he did- football, basketball…heck even golf. All except baseball, that is. Indeed, statistics show that participation by African American youths in the activity Robinson integrated is at the lowest it has ever been. Some can blame inner city circumstances and a lack of legitimate opportunities, but it seems odd that the NFL and NBA would thrive while MLB would slip.To that end, 42 has no real answers. It sets a stage and then acts upon it. Robinson is constantly chided as being the bellwether for the future, for getting the otherwise ignorant white folks to finally realize that black people aren’t evil devils ready to swoop in and steal their way of life. He will win them over with his superior talent and his “turn the other cheek” choices.


Racism as ugly as what is on display here can’t be bought off with a base hit or a photo op, however. It requires a much deeper and direct confrontation. 42 skirts that strategy to keep everything on the field. By doing so, it turns Robinson’s cause into a question of skill, not right or wrong…and racism can’t be countermanded so easily. He may have changed the face of the game forever, but the film of his import will do little except entertain. And excuse.


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Chadwick Boseman’s turn as Robinson in 42 is especially noteworthy; suffused with a gutsy yet light sense of humor, he brings a real grace to a role that’s more complicated than many will give it credit for.
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