Scott, this week we look at 42 – the Jackie Robinson story. I’m not a baseball fan, but this is a story that educated and entertained, somewhat.
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
It’s a story that’s hard not to like. The filmmakers here were trying to dramatize a pivotal moment in American history — the initial effort in 1947 to integrate Blacks into an exclusively White major league baseball culture.
The movie starts out with the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), making the decision to add a black player to the roster. He wants to win the National League pennant and believes that enlisting the best player from the black leagues will help him to do so. After combing through a long list, he selects Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman).
We are then witness to the abuse Robinson takes as he encounters a baseball world that almost universally detests his very presence in the game. Not only do opposing teams taunt and berate him, but even some of his own teammates petition to remove him from the team. He receives threats from fans and citizens on the street. Branch Rickey counsels him to be “tough enough NOT to fight,” and so Robinson fights back using the only method that he could — not with his fists, but with his stellar performance on the baseball field.
Scott, this is where I think 42 fails to deliver. There were a lot of people telling us about Robinson’s trials, but not a lot of showing us. For example, at one point a player complains to Rickey that he received a death threat for playing on the same team with Robinson. Rickey responds by pulling out file after file of death threats that Robinson had received. But we never see Robinson dealing with these threats on his life and the lives of his family. The film is low on drama and high on explaining.
I’m not sure we saw the same movie, Greg. There are countless scenes where players, managers, fans, and even the press treat Robinson in a demeaning manner. Robinson can’t retaliate but we see his inner anguish. We see the pain on his wife’s face as she witnesses the cruelty. If the movie was low on drama, it’s because we know the ending — obviously, Robinson and Rickey succeed in integrating baseball.
That’s where we differ again. It’s true that we see examples of the racism that Robinson endures, but we can’t see any reaction because he’s been hamstrung by an agreement to be “tough enough NOT to fight.” There is one scene where Robinson seems to have lost all hope – and Rickey consoles him. Not to give too much away, but Rickey turns out to be the hero in this film. While Robinson is credited with breaking the color barrier in baseball, 42 shows us that without Rickey’s generosity, it never would have happened.
We see White assistance in other race films as well. Take, for example, 2009’s The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock. In it we have a subdued black athlete who rises to greatness through the kindness of a white benefactor. And to some degree, Lincoln and Django, Unchained deliver a similar message. 42 falls into the same trap. On the one hand it offers a black man who overcomes racism to become a great baseball player. While on the other hand, reminding us that it is only through the beneficence of a white man that it is possible.
Greg, huge societal change can’t happen in a social vacuum — there have to be helpers along the way, and while you are correct in pointing out movies where Whites occupy the position of helper to Blacks, this is because Whites hold the power and are thus in a unique position to help. Without a Branch Rickey, there can be no Jackie Robinson.
In fact, I was quite intrigued with Branch Rickey’s multiple roles in this movie. (As an aside, Harrison Ford turns in a masterful performance as Rickey and should be nominated for an Oscar.) Rickey serves as the catalyst for Robinson’s journey while also playing the role of mentor to Robinson. Moreover, we learn later that Rickey has his own wounds that need healing and is on his own unique journey of redemption. If this film accomplishes anything, it shows us a greater social context to Robinson’s remarkable accomplishments, a context that most people have been sadly unaware of for decades.
We agree on one thing, Harrison Ford delivers a great performance as Branch Rickey. I hardly recognized him. But I have the same problem here that I had with Ford’s performance in the 2011 film Cowboys and Aliens – he practically steals the show. When you have a supporting actor with that much charisma and talent, he can overshadow the supposed lead.
I’d also like to compare this movie to another baseball film I’ve seen recently. I’m not a baseball fan, so details of baseball elude me. That’s why I was very happy when I saw Moneyball in 2011. That was a film that delivered a dramatic tale where I sat on the edge of my seat wondering if the heroes were going to win or lose. In 42 I really didn’t have a sense of impending success or failure. We were just led through the events of 1947 in a nearly documentary-style presentation. It was dull and unrewarding.
For me, 42 was far from dull and packed deep emotional punch. Harrison Ford was outstanding and Chadwick Boseman more than held his own as Jackie Robinson. It brought a lump to my throat to see two of Robinson’s teammates, Pee Wee Reese and Dixie Walker, put their own well-being on the line to support Robinson during the worst of the abuse.
I’m giving this movie 4 Reels out of 5 for its memorable portrayal of a defining moment in American racial desegregation. The film’s two parallel heroes — Rickey and Robinson — were stirring and inspirational. I give them 4 Heroes out of 5 for their moving depiction of integrity in action.
As I see it, the name of the movie is 42, not “Robinson and Rickey.” While I was educated about the trials of blacks in the major leagues of 1947, I didn’t get as much of a sense of Jackie Robinson himself. I give the movie 3 out of 5 Reels for “telling” me about Robinson more than “showing” me. But you can’t find better heroes than Jackie Robinson, or even Branch Rickey. While the real-life men deserve full marks, the presentation in this film merits only 4 out of 5 Heroes.