Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Ryan Merriman, Hamish Linklater, Christopher Meloni, T.R. Knight, Alan Tudyk, John C. McGinley
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements including language)
Running Time: 2:08
Release Date: 4/12/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 11, 2013
It is still a little shocking that people feel the need to ask if we really need stories about the blatant and at times systemic racism that existed in this country until about 50 years ago (And it's not like it went away overnight after that, either). There is only one rational response to it: As long as you are really asking that question, then, yes, we do still need such stories. 42, which tells a condensed version of Jackie Robinson's baseball career until the end of his first season in Major League Baseball, is such a story, and it's an effective one at that.
The film is by no means subtle (The first clue is Mark Isham's horn-based score), but this is not a subtle period the film presents. Racism of both the aggressive and casual varieties is abundant just about everywhere in the there and then. Whether it's a team manager repeatedly shouting a racial epithet at the first African American player in MLB history or an umpire calling said player out on a call that could have gone either way before glaring at him with disdain or a sports reporter suggesting this player has an unfair advantage due to some cockamamie BS about genetically elongated heel bones, the film does not shy away from some of the worst excuses for humanity have to offer, but writer/director Brian Helgeland is more concerned with the best—that people can change.
Again, it's an obvious observation, but consider for a moment what the film does not do. It does not give us a big game where the fates of multiple characters are on the line. It does not offer a three-balls-and-two-strikes-in-the-bottom-of-the-ninth scenario that tests the hero's abilities under manufactured strain. The film does not present a protagonist sitting high above the repeated and constant taunts as a paragon of virtue and grace under pressure.
Instead, the baseball in Helgeland's film comes in spurts of at-bats and on-base decisions. The victories are relatively small—a base hit (or home run) here, a stolen base (or two or three) there. Every time he steps to the plate or makes it to first base is an opportunity to prove the naysayers and bigots wrong.
Even Robinson himself, played with effortless charm by Chadwick Boseman, is not a saint; that would be too easy. Instead, here is a man rightly enraged by the ignorance and bigotry of those who have no interest in learning what kind of player—let alone man—he is but knows that any public display of that anger and frustration would ruin his career and the future careers of any African American who could have the opportunity to play in the majors. It's a performance he's putting on every time he steps on the field. Some people may be born with an innate ability to remain collected in times of stress, but real strength is in those people who stand tall while their heart is breaking—who restrain when every fiber of their being tells them to fight.
The strategy comes from Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who, in 1945, decides the time is right to integrate professional baseball. Those around him are skeptical, but he insists his motive is one of cynical capitalistic opportunism ("All money is green," he rationalizes). Later in the film, Rickey explains to Robinson that his reasoning is a more honorable one; he's putting on an act, too.
The screenplay follows Robinson as Rickey selects the shortstop on the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro American League team, to enter spring training for the Dodgers' minor league affiliate in Montreal. When he receives the news and after realizing it isn't a joke, he immediately proposes to Rachel (Nicole Beharie) over the phone, and she becomes the only wife of any of the players that Rickey allows to accompany her husband to training. Rickey also assigns a sports journalist named Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), himself the victim of a segregated profession, to help prepare Robinson for the onslaught of questions that no one would think to ask a white player.
Robinson encounters trials from the start. A random man appears at the house where Robinson is staying for training and quite matter-of-factly states that some men with ill intentions are coming. The team's fans boo him when he steps on the field. When rumors begin circling that he might play for the Dodgers next season, members of the team preemptively write and pass around a petition stating that they will not play if Robinson joins the team. Their manager (Christopher Meloni), a man who only cares about wins, sets them straight on the way the world is moving.
In the bustle of office politics and the adaptation of various supporting characters (One of the film's best scenes takes the roundabout way to show how racism is passed down through generations and how a role model's example can ignite the spark of acceptance), the story of Robinson's life is lost. We see him standing guard over his newborn son in the maternity ward, promising that he, unlike his father, will be there his boy, and there are a few scenes that point to a tender and supportive marriage to Rachel.
He's not a one-note character (There's a scene in which he has to remove himself from the field to the tunnel under the stands so that he can take out his frustration for a racist opposing coach on a brick wall), but as an idea, he is a one-note one. It's a fine and noble idea, though, and 42 follows through on it with sincerity.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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