The tricky thing about making a movie about a story that everybody should know is that it requires you to also make a movie that everybody should watch. It’s Hollywood doing its part to make history classes that much easier to teach by creating a week long film lesson that’s only justified because everyone has to fill out a worksheet on the concepts it was trying to get across (the cruel bastards). For this week’s lesson kids, we’re going to learn the answer to life, the universe, and everything: Baseball…errr…42.
The story of Jackie Robinson is one that’s looked as the beginning of the end for racism; not a strikeout but more that nasty curveball that the batter let go past that urges the pitcher to see what else he can get away with. It was threatening, dangerous to the integrity of the game to let a black man share the field with white folk, and 42 made sure to rub that in every chance it got with boos and hisses from the crowd, Branch Rickey repeating that “no, it really wasn’t dangerous” every single line, and the N-word being thrown around like it was the next great meme. Whereas this led to some incredibly great moments with some really powerful lines, I struggled with the overall tone and composition of this movie and I can’t really say it’s a “MUST watch,” though I still recommend it.
42 had a lot of stories it wanted to tell but never seemed to settle on which one it liked best until it realized there was only one avenue left to go down. It was like Neapolitan ice cream where, yeah it’s great to combine all the flavors and see how much they synergize and harmonize, but after a while you realize that you’re just left with the crappy strawberry to sit in the freezer ‘cause nobody eats JUST strawberry if they can avoid it. Was 42 about racism in baseball? Or was it about Jackie Robinson? Was it about the Brooklyn Dodgers accepting a black man in the ranks all Remember the Titans style? Or was it about Branch Rickey’s goal to win the pennant? Was it about money? Or was it about getting people in the seats? Yes. Yes it was, but you can sort through all that, we have more ominous trumpet music to play and Harrison Ford is solidifying his Best Actor win for next year.
I have to admit, for being a movie about racism, especially at this level, I felt 42 took it a bit passive. The amplification of the danger for Jackie as he moved towards big league ball was never really touched on. Like a zombie apocalypse game where the developers don’t add new complexities but instead just send more zombies at you, 42 left the racist-cliched fear of violence and the death threats in the filing cabinet (literally) and just decided on “we’ll use the N-word a whole lot more.” If that’s how it ACTUALLY happened…I can’t say anything really convinced me. It looked too much like it was holding back, perhaps to stay in that PG-13 range.
I can’t help but feel the same way I did about The Stoning of Soraya M. where the film was banking on me coming in with pent up anger and rage at the injustice so they felt it didn’t need to help it along. As a result, those moments of triumph weren’t looked at with the same prestige and accomplishment, they were just kinda “atta boy” moments, doomed to fade to black as quickly as the scene.
However, despite all that, those moments were cool to watch, tearjerkers of sorts because I do know of the injustice. I grew up in the South and learned about Jackie Robinson before I learned about MLK. I got my glimpses of racism watching my friends spout slurs and, thankfully, never felt the urge to jump on that wagon. But for those who don’t know, where racism at that level is now merely (wonderfully) a chapter in their American history books, I can’t feel this gets whatever job it set out to do done to completion. Too much was done only 90% and though it was a good 90%, I walked away feeling something was either missed or lost.
To me, sports are the greatest creation since humanity itself. Sports fans are the only group of people that, when the world needs to be uplifted, are eager to set aside their differences, from rivalries to life choices, to stop and simply celebrate their ability to be. We look at the events of the last week in Boston and I take note of TD Garden, in unscripted unison, belting out the Star Spangled Banner when the Bruins hit the ice again. The entire London Marathon stopping to take a moment of silence for their fellow runners across the ocean. And, of course, the New York Yankees, burying the hatchet for one day and playing Sweet Caroline as the fans sung along happily when, on any other day, that would have been the punishment for losing a bet on karaoke night. There is nothing more inspiring, more positive, and more effective at spotlighting how meaningless petty prejudices are than sports, and the story of Jackie Robinson is, perhaps, the best proof.
Sadly, I don’t think 42 did the best job of showing it. What it showed was good, really good, but it just didn’t flow and started to feel a bit stale and though it is one of the greatest stories in sports, that doesn’t mean you get to throw it on the screen however you want and it’s suddenly an iconic movie for the ages. I will watch it again. You should watch it. It’s a great biopic and worth a satisfying 8 dustbusters out of 10 from me.