I once took a college course about the civil rights movement in Columbia, Missouri, the city where Branch Rickey died. An important assignment was to pick a prominent civil rights leader from a list and give an oral report on the person’s life. On the list were such names as Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and Angela Davis. When my turn to pick a name came up, I couldn’t believe my luck, Martin Luther King was still available. I chose him immediately. I wasn’t going to make any waves; I was going to give a speech about the one man to whom no one could take objection. I gave an uninspiring, by-the-numbers report hitting all the major points in the great man’s life, more or less regurgitating every Encyclopedia Britannica write-up ever written about him. At the end of my report, a number of my classmates questioned me, chastising me for not presenting an opposition view to King’s tactics and for smoothing over unseemly parts of the man’s personal life, including an allegation of infidelity that I had failed to even acknowledge. I stammered through the Q and A and retook my seat burning with shame. Whenever I think about that episode, a similar heat of abashment returns. Not only did I do a bad, unexamined job on the assignment, but I had cynically and odiously assumed that, as a white student, I should keep my objectivity in check lest I insult or besmirch a national hero. Worse, I delivered a pious and sanctimonious sermon that didn’t challenge and did little but make me feel better about myself. My classmates, my professor, I and Dr. King all deserved better than that. I kept returning to this memory while watching 42 (2013), which I won’t dare accuse of coming from the same calculated place as my King assignment, but gave me a similar feeling of unexamined hero-worship, and after the pious sermon I can’t say I know more about Jackie Robinson, but I can say that I am meant to feel better about myself.
The difference between 42 and another hero-worship historical school report like, say, Lincoln (2012), is that Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is only a prop in his own movie. 42 belongs to Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who hired Robinson, and how Jackie was able to make him cry tears of joy one time. In the end, that’s the story. Robinson’s rise to the Major Leagues and his brutal treatment by the racists around him is just the framework, and his triumph is Rickey’s triumph because it was Rickey who chose him. “You’re medicine,” Rickey tells Robinson during a low moment, and Rickey is the doctor who prescribed him to the nation, melting away intolerance from Philadelphia to St. Louis.
This treatment is reductive and obscures our ability to get to know an interesting figure in the nation’s history, a man of fierce dignity who was involved in the first significant civil rights move of the 20th century, a man who was so horribly abused that, when he died at the age of 53, he looked like a man of 83. A man who was instrumental in the dissolution of Major League Baseball’s color line but also in the erasure of the Negro Leagues as an institution, a man whose legacy becomes ambiguous as black participation in organized baseball continues to shrink. That man doesn’t appear in 42 or, if he does, he doesn’t for very long. The Jackie Robinson of this movie is here as a symbol for white teammates to use for their own maturity, as a symbol to expose ignorance in white opponents, as a symbol to show black children, just as symbolically, who to be. “I don’t care if they like me; I didn’t come here to make friends,” Robinson says in a rare moment of insight into his character. I’m sure he didn’t come there to be white people’s medicine either, but that we don’t get to find out.
I’m not saying that people who enjoyed or gained inspiration from 42 are racist or shallow or biddable because the movie is none of those things, and furthermore, I enjoyed it and was inspired by it. This is, in many ways, an excellent movie, faithful to the legend, competently assembled and executed and buoyed by a tremendous performance by Ford as Rickey who, truth be told, does deserve credit for hiring Robinson, even if, at worst, he was only acting prudently or, at best, he was only acting decently. Still, there’s no denying that the story of Jackie Robinson is entwined with that of Branch Rickey and vice versa (although good movies could be made about both in which the other is just a bit player). Brian Helgeland, who wrote and directed, dramatizes Robinson’s story in a compelling way and has a good ear for dialogue, crafting scenes that sizzle, but the problem is that Robinson is the least interesting character, if he can be called one at all.
Boseman is exceptionally appealing, and he gives a wonderfully physical performance of quiet determination, but the person he’s playing is too quiet and seems determined to disappear entirely. The memorable parts in the film belong to the white characters around Robinson: Rickey and his associate Harold (T.R. Knight) and Robinson’s teammates and opponents like Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), the Dodger’s shortstop; Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), Brooklyn’s pitcher; Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the vitriol-spitting manager of the Philadelphia Phillies; and Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), Brooklyn’s quick-talking manager who delivers his famous axiom, “Nice guys finish last” while cheating on his wife (this revisionist version is absolutely inaccurate in terms of where and when the line was said, and in its meaning but enjoyable just the same). Robinson has to be so preternaturally good and virtuous he has no room for humanity, which is extended to his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who sexlessly supports him without complaint and the newspaperman Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who acts as Robinson’s hype man. Robinson is given no demons of his own, only the ability to erase the ones within the whites around him, and a biopic about Jackie Robinson shouldn’t be about the pain of white people. That Jackie Robinson must have been a remarkable human being to stand up to this type of bigotry day in and day out with the strength to let only his bat and glove speak for him is clear enough and his graciousness and dignity deserves no limit of adulation and a movie could be made that tapped into his inner feelings without undermining his outer righteousness but those thoughts are never revealed. What did he think about these things that were happening to him? What did he say when he came home? Why did he even want to do it? Check all three, and more, as unanswered.
Every teachable moment involves a white teammate or player growing out of his ignorance and accepting Robinson, forgoing any semblance that perhaps it’s Jackie’s acceptance of them that should be more valuable. Reese puts his arm around Robinson on the field in a display of unity and his emerging liberalism. A player who was instrumental in organizing a written pledge to refuse to play with Robinson asks not to be traded after he finds out what a swell guy his teammate is. Even the movie’s greatest and grittiest scene, when Chapman hurls slurs at Robinson from the Philadelphia dugout, which better than any other moment in the movie provides real insight into the torture Robinson had to endure, serves as a showcase for the bravery and sportsmanship of the white players on Brooklyn’s team. These moments are lifted from real life and Helgeland has every right to present them, but they are the defining trait of the movie, which is why, when Robinson hits the home run in the Big Game to win Brooklyn the pennant* we get a reaction shot of Rickey, not of Robinson, looking proud and a little self-congratulatory. It’s his moment; in 42, he made Robinson. It’s this oversimplification that causes the movie the most problems, especially in its characterization of Robinson as a saint. The movie has value, more than most, but it’s the Encyclopedia Britannica version; it hits all the notes but stays on the page.
*Robinson’s home run was actually a fourth-inning dinger in a game that, though the Dodgers won it, wouldn’t decide the outcome of the pennant race (it was also at night when the movie shows it during the day). The Dodgers actually were crowned the champions of the National League on an off-day, thanks to a loss by the second-place team, but it’s hard to dramatize that.