You know exactly what you’re getting when you go into a sports drama, particularly one where a central theme is racism: an inspirational, moving piece of work burdened by heavy handed melodrama and an ample dose of “racism is bad” shoved down your throat. If you judged a movie based solely on its message, all of these movies would be home runs (or touchdowns or slam dunks…pick your sports metaphor). However, a message alone isn’t enough to sustain a movie. As the late Roger Ebert said, a movie “isn’t about what it’s about. It’s about how it’s about it.” Luckily, this week’s “42” is about it as well as you could possibly hope. It’s not even close to perfect, but it has great performances, some witty writing and a story that knows exactly how to handle itself, meaning it knows that Jackie Robinson isn’t remembered for playing baseball. He’s remembered for the impact his playing of baseball had on the hearts and minds of those who watched him play it, helping, in his own special way, to end segregation and bring equality to African Americans across the country.
Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie. He’s a young kid playing in the Negro leagues of baseball, the separate league for black men who aren’t deemed fit to stand alongside whites on the field. His talent is astounding and the executive to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), has taken notice. He wants him to try out for their minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, and if he does well enough, he’ll be in the running for a spot in the big leagues, potentially becoming the first black man to play the all white game. As we know, Jackie was successful in doing just that, but his inclusion to a previously all-whites club doesn’t sit well with his team, the fans or the country in general. “42” is the story of this time.
Although racism is certainly still present in today’s society, many kids will find the attitudes of certain characters onscreen as foreign and strange, archaic in a way that they won’t understand, which is exactly why this movie, and other movies like it, need to be made. As ridiculous as it seems now, this is how some people treated others, not by their merits or actions, but by the color of their skin. It’s a shameful and embarrassing part of American history that many would like to forget, but absolutely shouldn’t.
This study of racism directed at one man is focused and captivating and will undoubtedly tug at the heartstrings of its viewers. Indeed, that is its very intent, and the movie makes no bones about it. Constantly swelling music, prophetic words of wisdom that exist only in a screenplay and one-liners that feel like they were written solely to be included in the trailer are prevalent in “42.” The bad guys, more often than not, come off more like caricatures than real people, like the baseball commissioner who speaks in a down-home Southern voice with an unmistakable tinge of hate and sits back in his big, comfy chair while his assistant files his nails. Many of the good guys come off like that too, until the movie plays the old switcheroo on the viewer, showing that, hey, maybe that guy isn’t so bad after all. All but the sports drama uninitiated will see right through it.
But there’s a warmness to the movie, a nice balance between displaying the hatred and not overdoing it to the point where all the white characters look evil. Ford, in particular, is fantastic and stands up for Robinson even when those around him refuse to. There’s nothing more entertaining than seeing the smirk on his face as Robinson pulls off his first amazing play while sitting in a sea of angry, hissing racists. Similarly, the movie knows when to make fun of, or perhaps pay homage to, the time period, shown best when listening to the quick talking, metaphor using sports radio commentator calling the play-by-play. As portrayed hilariously by John C. McGinley, the film uses his moments to lighten the mood and provide some great laughs.
But it also succeeds in its quieter moments. Its single most powerful moment comes during a singing of the Star-Spangled Banner before a game. At this time, both blacks and whites on and off the field stand as one, looking to the flag and holding their hands over their hearts. It’s a beautiful scene that disrupts the dichotomy of racist thought. That flag, and the lives that fell to defend it, represent equality and harmony among all Americans, not just the few who consider themselves privileged and better than others. As they stand, remembering the horrors of the war behind them and dreaming of peace for the future, they are quiet and all malice dies, if only for a short time. It’s a great scene that shows that hope can exist, and even prevail, in the face of evil and hatred.
So even though it's hard to look past some of the film's cheese and despite its insistence on pounding you over the head with its obvious message, "42" captures rather faithfully an emotionally turbulent time that caused a lot of pain and suffering. Despite his insistence that he was just a ball player, Robinson was so much more. He'll forever stand as a hero not just among African Americans, but among people of any color who dream of a day when our skin doesn't separate us into groups, but rather our actions. It sometimes seems like that will never happen, but if nothing else, Jackie Robinson, and this film in honor of him, keep that dream alive.
42 receives 3.5/5