While I was waiting for my cherry coke at the theatre last night, the teenager who was serving popcorn asked me what this 42 movie was all about anyhow and why so many people were coming to the early show to see it. “Do you know who Jackie Robinson is?,” I asked. “No,” he said. I told the kid who Jackie Robinson was and felt an immediate wave of disappointment when I saw that why being the first black man to play in major league baseball didn’t seem like a big deal to the kid. Is it nice that he doesn’t process the segregation and prejudice implications of Robinson’s importance as a civil rights hero? Well…no. I want to scream yes! I want to think this means we live in a post-racial world where nothing matters but our character, perseverance and abilities.
Unfortunately, that’s just not the world we live in. I’ve read several stringent critiques about how 42 is too simplistic and presents racism as a historical setting and nothing more. I thought of these criticisms as I watched the film last night. I thought about whether or not those criticisms could hold water when the kid at the concessions stand, and a lot of other kids I’ve taught in my years as a substitute teacher, don’t know or care about segregation. As critics, we sometimes get a little too wrapped up in theory and trick ourselves into believing that movies are only good if they are complex and challenging.
This, too, is untrue. 42 was entertaining, touching and even excellent precisely because it caters both to diehard baseball fans (who surrounded me in the theater) and to the wider social aim of showing up racists for just how absurd they really are. In several scenes, most notably in a meeting between the Phillies and the Dodgers, racial diatribes fly forth from the mouths of fans and baseball players in a fashion that would be unheard of today.
Some criticisms of this scene have said that it didn’t deal with the issue of racism; it was just a portrayal of a racist man. Guess what? None of the officials at that game dealt with the issue of racism either. That’s the point, isn’t it? Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers were dealing with the issue of racism in the MLB when nobody else seemed to be doing so. I think it’s hard for many of us to imagine hearing such hateful rhetoric as a regular, commonplace thing. But it’s important for us to remember that it was.
Criticizing 42 for handling racism too simplistically is like criticizing Schindler’s List for handling the Holocaust too simplistically. I have my theory-based disagreements with that piece of Speilbergia, but ultimately the message that it shares is a lot more important than my I-studied-Sociology-for-a-long-time feelings about portrayals of victimhood. Critics of 42 have wondered why it couldn’t have been handled more like a Spike Lee movie. I think it’s pretty simple: Those movies are for a decidedly adult audience. A 10-year-old who just loves basketball won’t be allowed to watch He’s Got Game and would likely find the movie boring anyhow.
A kid who loves baseball can watch 42. Older folks who feel so-so about baseball but remember Jackie Robinson paving the way for other minority players can watch 42. A critic like myself who finds baseball generally boring but is a sucker for movies in which someone is busy resisting social norms can watch 42. Let’s celebrate what 42 can and does do.