Ah, the “uplifting movie loosely based on the inspiring true story of an underdog athlete” genre. It’s been a while since we’ve had one of these, hasn’t it? The most recent ones that I can recall off the top of my head are Moneyball in 2011, The Fighter in 2010 and The Blind Side way back in 2009. Then again, Moneyball was primarily about the behind-the-scenes aspect of baseball, and The Fighter was much more of a family drama.
The Blind Side is more like the kind of movie I’m talking about. Movies like Rudy, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, etc. I’m talking about movies that use sports as a shorthand way of getting the audience excited, that use underdog characters as a shorthand way of gaining audience sympathy, and use the “based on a true story” label to imply that any one of us could overcome the odds to be the next hero. That the films actually bear little resemblance if any to the actual stories is of course beside the point.
This particular genre has become so overburdened by cliches and parodied so many times over the years that it’s little wonder the formula went stale. Of course, Hollywood execs and common moviegoers both have such notoriously short memory spans that I suppose it was inevitable someone would try again. Even better, now that Tyler Perry has turned black moviegoers into such a coveted demographic, why not make a film about a civil rights icon while we’re at it?
Thus we have 42, a biopic of Jackie Robinson. More specifically, it tells the story of how Robinson (played by television actor Chadwick Boseman) got his place among the Brooklyn Dodgers and came to be the first black player in major league baseball. How does the movie turn out? Well…
I’ll put it to you this way: In the second half of the movie, Robinson is up to bat against a racist pitcher. We know that the pitcher is racist because he’s white, he’s beady-eyed, he’s got a narrow face, he’s got very high cheekbones… he just looks evil is what I’m trying to say. Anyway, the pitcher throws the ball and hits Robinson square on the head. In response, the rest of the Dodgers storm the field to confront the pitcher. Then the other team comes onto the field, and we’ve got a huge brawl going on between the two teams.
And through it all, there’s Jackie Robinson on the ground, looking up at the chaos surrounding him, like “How did I get here and what do I do about it?”
That scene is basically the entire movie in a nutshell. For whatever reason, the film puts far too much focus on backstage maneuvering and the prejudices of the time, leaving precious few chances for us to learn more about Jackie Robinson as a person. And even when those precious few moments come, they never really tell us anything new about Robinson. The film does a lot to glorify Robinson the legend, make no mistake, but it doesn’t do much of anything to examine Robinson the man.
That’s really a damn shame, considering that Chadwick Boseman was more than capable of portraying Robinson as a character with depth. As a case in point, we get one brief monologue in which Robinson is talking to his newborn son. He’s reflecting about his own father — whom he never knew — and swearing with God as his witness that he will be there for this child. It’s a powerful scene for how brief it is, and that’s in large part because of how much emotional vulnerability Boseman brings to it. Alas, that — and a brief temper tantrum in the dugout — is really all Boseman gets. That’s his only real chance to bring any kind of dramatic weight to the character.
No, the true star of this movie is Harrison Ford, playing Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. He’s more or less Robinson’s mentor figure, the token white person who makes everything possible for the black hero. And in all honesty, I think that Rickey might get more screen time than Robinson does. Heaven knows he has far more effect on the plot. Rickey’s giving all the motivational speeches, hiring and firing whomever it is he needs to, effectively doing everything for Robinson so that our alleged protagonist never really has to be bothered with advancing or affecting the plot.
What’s more, the crux of Robinson’s arc is that he has to hold his temper in check. Robinson’s sole responsibility in this entire movie (other than to play ball really well) is to face every insult and racial epithet with his head held high. In other words, Robinson (and Boseman, by extension) is responsible for suppressing his personality. Compare that to Rickey, who’s played with the best Burgess Meredith impersonation that Harrison Ford can conjure. He’s the most memorable character in this movie by a long shot, and he gets some of the screenplay’s best lines. Hell, Rickey gets a scene to demonstrate his reaction to all the death threats that come by mail on a daily basis, yet Robinson doesn’t. There’s something terribly wrong with that, in my opinion.
As for the other white characters… *sigh*. Look, one of the problems in dealing with racism before the Civil Rights Movement is that you’re going to end up with two-dimensional characters. The whole mindset of segregation and the arguments used to defend it are all such evil absurdities to modern ears that there’s no way to express them without coming off as a cartoon villain. It simply can’t be done.
By extension, because the racism of old is now so repugnant in every way, it’s not really possible to feel ambivalent toward it. You can’t say “well, I wouldn’t own slaves myself, but I can understand the appeal” or “I wouldn’t drink from the same fountain as a black person, but mandatory segregation by federal law is just wrong.” You’re either a die-hard racist yearning for a return to Jim Crow or you believe that people of all races should be considered equal. There is no middle ground between these two extremes in our reality, nor is there any such middle ground in our movies.
This particular movie is no exception, though it does struggle mighty hard to try and find the occasional middle ground. Every so often, you’ll find white people who are willing to set aside their racist feelings about Jackie Robinson, simply because he’s helping Brooklyn win games. Easily the most notable example is Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), who gives a fiery and entertaining monologue at roughly the halfway point.
Aside from those few and minor exceptions, pretty much every white character in this movie is either a saint who believes in integration or an evil prick who thinks that black people are inherently inferior. It’s the same boring two-note argument we’ve all heard ad nauseam ever since the Civil Rights Movement ended. Then again, inspirational sports movies have always been short on nuance and long on cliches, so maybe this just comes with the genre.
Of course, we do have a couple of other prominent black characters as well. One of them is Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a journalist hired by Rickey to be Robinson’s biographer, chauffeur, assistant, handler, etc. Basically, Smith is there to protect Robinson and his reputation in ways that no white person ever could. He has a unique gift for explaining things in terms that Robinson can understand, which is of course invaluable. Of course, Smith also has a personal stake in watching Robinson succeed, which grants the character a personality and a motivation of his own. Smith is a sidekick, sure, but he’s a halfway decent sidekick.
Then there’s Jackie’s wife. Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) starts out as Jackie’s loving wife and she goes through the entire movie as his loving wife. There’s never any conflict — much less any plot relevance — to be found in their relationship. This might sound like a complaint, but it actually does the movie quite a few favors. This marital stability makes it clear that these are both good people who are deeply committed to their marriage, which keeps the both of them likeable. Moreover, Beharie and Boseman both make it absolutely clear that she is his rock. She’s one of Jackie’s primary motivations and one of his greatest sources of strength in the face of adversity. Even if Beharie never really gets to do much except to play a loving wife and mother, that’s still more than enough.
From a technical standpoint, the film is merely okay. The score is incredibly sappy, though that’s yet another drawback of working in the “inspirational sports film” genre. The retro set design looks very good, though the visuals are otherwise unremarkable. Except during the baseball sequences. When this movie is showing us a baseball game in progress, the camerawork and editing suddenly make a huge improvement. Great stuff.
Then there’s the screenplay. Though I keep complaining about the cliched characters and the lack of sufficient screen time for Jackie Robinson himself, the movie does have some very clever and funny moments. Most of them go to Ford (“Do you believe that God likes baseball?”), though some other characters get in on the action as well (“I thought you woke me up because I got cut from the team!” Trust me, it’s funnier in context.)
As long as I’m on the subject, there’s a joke in this movie that deserves some extended scrutiny. See, it’s accepted in a segregated society that white people and colored people do not shower together. The very thought of it was inconceivable back in the day, and many characters in the film use it as a key reason why black people and white people could never play baseball together.
This is why, through most of the film, Robinson never hits the showers until his teammates are done first. So naturally, a fellow Dodger asserts that as part of the team, Robinson should shower with the rest of the team. At the time, this would have been every bit as radical and outrageous as the notion of a black man playing baseball. Yet instead of treating the moment as a serious breakthrough in the racial integration of baseball, the movie plays it for awkward faux-homoerotic laughs. Make of that what you will.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the total lack of a climax in this picture. There may be a token attempt at a climax, but it’s terribly contrived and totally lacking in any kind of tension. From there, the movie simply shows us a montage to glorify Jackie Robinson as it tapers off into the end credits. A blunt reminder that this film was far more interested in Jackie Robinson’s legend than his character.
42 is a very peculiar movie. The characters are almost entirely two-dimensional, the screenplay is loaded with cliches, the main character gets almost no development, and the plot is quite sadly predictable. On the other hand, the movie gets by on sheer force of effort and overwhelming charm. Harrison Ford puts in a very spirited performance, Chadwick Boseman makes for a wonderfully charismatic lead with prodigious screen presence, and several other characters get some amusing moments as well.
In the end, it all evens out to just another uplifting movie loosely based on the inspiring true story of an underdog athlete. Personally, given the prominence of Jackie Robinson himself, I went in expecting more. Still, if you’ve got a craving for a lowest-common-denominator sports film to pull at your heartstrings in artificial and mindless ways, give this one a try.