There are no surprises in 42. Naturally, it being a film based on the much more incredible true story of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball, it was already apparent that this would be the case: history has already unfolded this tale. No, the dearth of anything innovative in 42 comes from its unabashedly traditionalist storytelling, the kind that has driven sports films about segregated America both exemplary (Remember the Titans) and rote (The Express).
The film opens with an expository run-through of all the antecedent conditions to Robinson’s arrival into the MLB and closes with a series of “where are they now?” placards over the main characters. Director Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale) employs a liberal amount of sickening scenes that function as sobering reminders of just exactly how evil institutionalized segregation was, including a scene where Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) are told they cannot get on a flight because the plane is “too heavy”—only to discover their seats have been given up to a white couple. Mark Isham’s score, which takes several cues from the likes of John Williams, swells exactly at the moments when emotions are likely to soar.
These composite facets add up to a story that, while significant in innumerable ways, feels rather been-there-done-that. This is not the fault of the cast, which does the best it can with the boilerplate storytelling it’s forced to work with. Boseman’s turn as Robinson 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. The key tension in Robinson’s rise to prominence in the MLB has to do with the way history treats him as a bastion for the beginning of more equal race relations in baseball.
Though his breaking of the color barrier is an important event, of course, it overlooks the fact that, to a large extent, Robinson wasn’t necessarily looking to bear the entire responsibility of making the MLB a racially diverse institution. He was—amongst other things—a supremely talented baseball player, one of the best the sport has ever seen, who just wanted to play ball. Boseman bears this weight in every scene he’s in following his acquisition by the Brooklyn Dodgers, which brings a nuanced emotional undercurrent to the frequently rote proceedings. This quality of Boseman’s performance is helped in large part by Beharie’s understated performance as Rachel. In several scenes, even as all she does is watch and whisper from the stands as Robinson goes up against an MLB full of racist pricks, she captivates.
Now, for all of the play-it-safeisms of 42, it’s a pretty enjoyable film for reasons like Boseman and Beharie—and, heck, Harrison Ford even manages to not be too senile as Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Dodgers. Anyone looking to be inspired by the story of one of America’s greatest sportsmen will likely leave satisfied. That all of the standard sports film buttons are being pushed here, however, is not the real problem. As with any movie aiming for broad audience appeal, which this one definitely is, lots of things get glossed over, which is unfortunate, given that one of 42’s primary areas of exploration, racism, is a topic where glossing over will not do.
Though the script swerves away from some potentially egregious mistakes, including a close call with a cringe-worthy post-racial quote (“Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear the number 42, that way they won’t be able to tell us apart,” teammate Pee Wee Reese tells Robinson), it falls square in the middle of an all-too prevalent misstep in handling the issue of racism. Continuing on in the trend of “white savior” cinema, a trait of numerous sports flicks along with period pieces like The Help, 42‘s storytelling centers on the need for privileged white people to “rescue” a disenfranchised black man or woman. For a moment the movie seems to avoid this narrative, but it’s not long before the conclusion that it raises its head.
The crux of 42 rests in an early scene where Rickey calls Robinson in to tell him his intentions to have him on the Dodgers. Rickey is entirely sold on Robinson’s baseball playing abilities, but he has one major concern: that the rookie won’t be able to hold his temper when people start calling for his head. “I want a player who has the strength not to fight back,” hey says, then invoking the Biblical aphorism “to turn the other cheek.” From then on, Robinson doesn’t do anything to provoke violence, even as the utterly vile Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) lets a fount of slurs overflow as he steps up to the plate. His pacifistic attitude towards people who, frankly, deserved a little more than a broken bat to the throat, is admirable beyond words.
But 42’s implication that Robinson needed “coaching” to prevent him from exploding in outrage on those who acted horrendously towards him is nothing more than a variation on the “white savior” complex. Its presumption is that this man is naturally predisposed to acts of violence—violence that, keep in mind, few should be genuinely outraged by, given his circumstances—which is clearly nonsense. Witness as Robinson, who after being hit in the face by a rogue pitch thrown by Pittsburg Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller (Linc Hand) lays calmly on the ground, trying to relax himself after taking a considerable blow. Meanwhile, all of his white teammates charge the mound, displaying the rage that he supposedly is constantly boiling over with.
Racism is, at its core, not just immoral but incoherent, as is the case with any other form of prejudice. From its illogical construction arises a series of contradictions and impossible choices. “[Robinson] doesn’t have the ice water in his veins to play Major League Baseball,” an angry Dodger says when Robinson joins the team. Here is where the contradiction in this situation become apparent: in order to prove himself as having “ice water veins,” Robinson must act tough and aggressive; but, if he does so, he only confirms in the minds of the racist baseball players “the myth of the animalistic negro” that Rickey bought right into at the film’s beginning, which would be cause for his exclusion from the major leagues. If he doesn’t act, the white ballplayers will have a different racist narrative confirmed: that he is inferior, unable to handle the duress of the white leagues. (Never minding the fact that, despite being unfairly segregated, the Negro Leagues wrought some of the finest ballplayers of all time.)
In 42, as he was in real life, Jackie Robinson is trapped. It also doesn’t help that the intricacies of racism like those depicted aren’t the film’s primary focus; as with any sweeping biopic, it goes straight for the basic oppressed/oppressor framework. Of course, that dynamic was an absolute fact of life at Robinson’s time, but broad brush strokes hardly do the man’s story any favors.
These simplistic power dynamics are all the more devastating when considering that there are times when 42 hits critical issues right on the head. In one harrowing and instructive scene, a young white boy watches from the stands as Robinson takes the field. All around him are people, including the boy’s father, who are yelling at Robinson to get out of the ballpark, telling him he doesn’t belong. The boy is perplexed by these cries; he doesn’t understand their motivation. For a second, it looks as if he might cry out of stress or confusion. But then, as the shouting reaches a peak, the boy chimes in with the rest of them, shouting despicable words at a player who would later help shape the sport for the better.
This tiny but resounding scene gets right at the core of the “is racism taught or inherent” debate, offering convincing evidence of the former’s truth. It’s just a shame that this is a minor example, one that gets all-too-easily overshadowed by the mishandled storytelling that surrounds it. Yet sad as it is to admit, this is how stories about white America’s racial failings (and, in 42’s case, a story made by a white filmmaker) often go: ignore the complex power dynamics and blow up the generic ones. Focus on the people yelling in the stands and not on the harmful “Myth of Ice Water Veins” espoused by the pigs in the dugout.
Still, even for 42’s thematic and stylistic shortcomings, it does get one indubitably true thing right: for whatever evils threatened his career as a baseball player, Jackie Robinson overcame the skewed odds and became a legend. That’s a fact not even a frustratingly told story can obfuscate.