42: Jackie Robinson Earnest Biopic

By Jeff Farr

“42” is a somewhat schmaltzy, somewhat troubling look back at the 1940s of Jackie Robinson, when he broke through the color barrier to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

This movie pines for a time when racism was simpler—more in terms of black and white, more the good guys versus the bad guys—when people were more likely to wear their prejudices right on their sleeves where they couldn’t be missed.

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, a writer for “Mystic River” (2003) and “L.A. Confidential” (1997), “42” doesn’t break any barriers itself. Formulaic and earnest, this presumably revisionist biopic is earnest and squarely in the beloved tradition of Hollywood baseball inspirations. Moreover, in its sentimental tone, the movie iy quite similar to “A League of Their Own” (1992), although obviously with less broad humor and without the charisma of Gena Davis.

Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) is in this telling nearly unflappable—the ignorant racists coming at him from all directions can never get under his skin because he loves the game that much. Plus he’s got Branch Rickey (a clownish, harrumphing Harrison Ford) backing him up, the salty baseball executive who discovers Robinson in the “negro leagues” and fights to place him in the majors, despite the unbridled bigotry of his fellow powerbrokers and white ballplayers who aren’t yet ready for the inevitable future.

 

Rickey coaches Robinson to bottle his anger at injustice, a tactic this film endorses. But is “turning the other cheek” really the best way to work through racism, then or now?

Robinson was still a rookie when he led the Dodgers to win the 1947 National League pennant, which is where this movie wraps. “42” thus neatly ignores Robinson’s well-documented ambivalence, which surfaced later, about his rise to fame under Rickey’s tutelage.

With a soaring score by Mark Isham that doesn’t know when to take a break, “42” tries too hard to make its audience feel good about how far we’ve come as a nation, especially when the movie’s limiting itself to what amounts to one baby step in the larger history of civil rights.

The struggle certainly didn’t end with Robinson’s first year in the majors, but this film seems to think so. Instead of any genuine sense of how blacks were scrambling to get out from under centuries of poverty and oppression at that time, we get a long string of corny moments: Robinson again and again taking the high road, his white teammates and fans awakening from racism—just like that—because they were actually goodhearted people all along.

This film’s at its best when it takes a peek or two at the economics behind the Robinson story. There’s a well-placed early line where Rickey makes the point that “dollars aren’t black and white”—the Dodgers are business first, and ultimately Robinson’s given the opportunities he’s given because his owners, Rickey first among them, smell the possible big bucks to come.

Boseman gives a promising performance that shows a more intelligent Robinson than the screenplay allows for. He leads a well-stocked cast, full of many fine character actors, from Andre Holland to Max Gail, toward an effectively rousing close. Ford, however, is too often an overbearing distraction here.

The film gets better as it goes along—or maybe it just wears downs its audience with its pushy emotionality. “42” may win tears of pride from many viewers, even if it misses the opportunity to say something sharp about race in America and the true significance of Jackie Robinson in our cultural history.

That said, the biopic may have historical significance beyond its relatively mediocre artistic merits. Conventional as the film is, it revisits an important chapter in American history, introducing a seminal figure and crucial event to a whole new generation of viewers who may not even have heard of Jackie Robinson.

Speaking as an educator (I am a university professor), I highly recommend that “42” be shown in elementary schools and high schools, providing a platform for interesting debate about the role of race in American life, past and present.

Thus, though I expect the movie to divide critics and to get mixed-to-positive reviews, domestic box-office prospects seem good for this spring release, which Warner has campaigned for aggressively, including interviews in the various mass media with Robinson’s surviving widow, who’s lucid and vibrant despite advanced age.