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Film Review: 42

42 (2013; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

Late on the night of August 28th, 2020, the movie-loving world learned to its immense shock, chagrin, and sadness that Chadwick Boseman had passed away at age 43 from colon cancer after a practically entirely private four-year battle with the disease. One of the most prominent and acclaimed African-American actors of his generation, the charismatic and poised Boseman made a tremendous impact on screen in a very short amount of time, racking up a nigh-on unbeatable set of roles memorably playing renowned black cultural icons both real and fictional in the scant space of half a decade: James Brown in Get On Up, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, King T’Challa in Black Panther, and, in his breakthrough performance, the immortal Jackie Robinson in 42.

Boseman carried himself with a grace, composure, and conviction onscreen and (seemingly) in real life, making him a superb choice to play Robinson, who in a very different and outwardly less tolerant time from our age of politically conscious and outspoken sports stars elevated the now-dismissive bumper-sticker slogan “shut up and play” to saintly proto-Civil Rights heights. Robinson, a talented multi-sport athlete out of California who had served in the military in World War II and then plied his sporting trade in the black-only Negro Leagues, became the first African-American player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Major League Baseball in 1947, breaking the colour barrier in America’s favourite pastime despite considerable prejudiced pushback. Integration of the league followed this first significant, symbolic victory for black rights in segregated post-war America, a warning shot for the Civil Rights era to come. Jackie Robinson was a human being with flaws like all of us, of course, but along with a select few elite Americans (Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr.) became a rarified icon, a mythic embodiment of idealized national character all the more powerful for his brave defiance of one fundamental aspect of that national character (namely racial hierarchy) that persists in an apparent death-struggle to this day, to the shame of the country and its people.

Not that Jack Roosevelt Robinson would have claimed such a lofty mantle when he was a Dodger, or that white (or even black) American baseball fans of the late 1940s would have tolerated him doing so. Jackie Robinson just wanted to play ball, to show what he could do and show that he belonged with the game’s best, whatever the colour of his skin. The racial political dimension of doing so can’t have been lost on him, but focus was fixed on the athletic achievement rather than any hint of social revolution. Likewise, the trailblazing Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played in 42 with pleasingly engaged broadness by Harrison Ford) was at pains to emphasize that he signed Robinson in order to win games and attract attention and money to his team, which as evidenced by their proletarian image and nickname “Dem Bums” had tended to be a poorer third-wheel to New York City’s other ballclubs, the dominant Yankees and the Giants (who, like the Dodgers, would move to California a decade after Robinson’s major league debut).

Although Rickey offers a private explanation of his choice to Robinson in the film (he claims lingering guilt over not doing enough to help a black college teammate who was driven from the sport by abuse and exclusion), capitalist motives dominate his public stances. Robinson and Rickey alike, at least as depicted in 42, hew to pragmatic utilitarianism rather than to moral elevation in their pursuit of a clearly apprehended but strategically disavowed incidental justice. Capitalist America is ever ruled by displays of value rather than by the higher principles it claims to hold to (hence slavery, Jim Crow, and the persistent racial hierarchy, which benefitted owners and elites with the capital they generated, financial and symbolic), and Robinson displayed the value of black ballplayers beyond doubt. Social change followed that revaluation, hardly as an afterthought but arguably as a corollary.

Boseman anchors 42‘s ensemble cast (including Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel, André Holland as his sportswriter friend and sometimes chauffeur Wendell Smith, and a sadly underutilized Christopher Meloni as the womanizing, no-nonsense Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who is suspended at the start of Robinson’s rookie season due to a scandalous affair offending Catholic ticketholders) with a quiet strength typical of a man who could not respond to the racist provocations hurled his way by prejudiced whites lest he undermine the entire effort. Ford’s Rickey points out the Christ-like, patient, turn-the-other-cheek calm of this required equilibrium, and Boseman registers and communicates the unfair cost and simmering injustice of his plight. If the historical Jackie Robinson could not let out the resentment and hurt surely inside him at his treatment lest he labelled as angry, tempestuous, weak, and therefore inferior to the white men around him, then Boseman’s 2013 portrayal of him cannot let these unequal social aggressions of white supremacy pass without acknowledgement.

In an invented scene following the relentless racial abuse aimed at Robinson by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), Boseman’s Robinson smashes a bat and howls and sobs in rage in the dugout tunnel after going out on his second at-bat beneath the torrent of Chapman’s slurs, only to be calmed by an empathetic Rickey. His teammate Ralph Branca (who acted as consultant for the film and no doubt as a result receives a sympathetic depiction as Robinson’s open-minded ally by Hamish Linklater) says the breakdown didn’t happen, but as compellingly acted by Boseman and central to Robinson’s myth as his stoic endurance and reserve is, the catharsis of allowing his frustration to show is to a large extent a necessary dramatic choice, demonstrating the psychological wear of persistent racism (distanced by time and located safely in the past, of course, as Hollywood liberalism prefers it).

42‘s writer/director is Brian Helgeland, who made A Knight’s Tale and wrote L.A. Confidential, and he crafts a sturdy if formalistically unchallenging sports-hero biopic along fairly predictable but bluntly effective formulaic lines. He builds to a climactic Big Game in which Robinson overcomes minor antagonists (including Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller, played by Linc Hand and blanketed in anti-German slurs by Branca during a bench-clearing brawl after he beans Robinson in the head) and helps his team win the pennant, to the cheers of the masses and the swelling score of composer Mark Isham. Helgeland’s framing of the nature of the racism that aligns itself against Robinson’s unprecedented position is likewise bluntly effective. Robinson’s on-field defeats of the Phillies and Pirates are understood likewise as defeats of the racist prejudice of Chapman and Ostermueller and former teammate Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer). Vignettes of segregation at a gas station, a hotel, and in a Florida town during spring training are unsubtle reminders of the Jim Crow order that Robinson was challenging.

42‘s treatment of 1940s American racial politics does not tend to challenge, but Helgeland and Boseman manage to carve out one sequence of mild insight. The Dodgers are in Cincinnati, just across the border from Kentucky, home state of the Dodgers’ future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black). Reese, a generally beloved All-Star, has received a threatening letter ahead of the road trip (Rickey assuages his concerns about it by showing him the three folders’ worth of even worse letters addressed to Robinson), and sure enough, the crowd’s racist vitriol towards Robinson is particularly vicious as the team takes the field. Helgeland focuses in on a young boy in the stands with his father, talking effusively like a Reese superfan and then, clearly modelling the behaviour of his prime male authority figure as well as the communal mood around him, unleashes the n-word when Robinson takes his position. It’s an ugly moment, but Reese’s response to it is more heartening while also being sharply nuanced: he strides over to Robinson and puts his arm around his black teammate’s shoulders while telling Jackie that he wants to show his family in the stands what kind of man he is. His fanboy in the crowd brightens at this moment, the positive modelling of his idol overcoming the negative modelling of his father and tipping him towards a tentative tolerance.

But Boseman’s mostly-quiet performance in this scene explores different implications. There’s a keen awareness in Boseman’s expression that Reese’s actions (what we’d now generously call allyship) are as much about Reese’s own feelings and public appearance as they are about supporting Robinson. Pee Wee needs this as much as Jackie does, if not more; he as much as says so. Black’s Reese trots off with a casual note of further support, offering to get the whole team to wear Robinson’s #42 uniform “so they can’t tell us apart”. Boseman’s Robinson lets a wry smile escape his lips. If only it was so simple to shift the weight of his burden. Is Robinson glad to have Reese in his corner? Sure, and the scene clearly signals that we’re supposed to feel glad about it too. But Boseman turns the serene composure and strong-silent-type nature of his Robinson into a stealthy critique of the performative allyship of liberal whites, of their need to make aiding in the quest for black justice about their own edifying redemption first and foremost. It’s far from ungenerous of him, but it shows that he’s no man’s prop either.

Chadwick Boseman’s serene strength as a performer was a classic Hollywood feature given more modern contour and shape by such notes of wry knowingness, and it characterized his later movie-star turns, especially as T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Little wonder that in the last new film he appeared in prior to his death, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Boseman was cast as a strong, wise-beyond-his-years idealization of just and brave black masculinity, literally framed in a key scene by crepuscular rays like a holy ghost, a superhero. An iconic subject like Jackie Robinson would overwhelm many very fine actors, but it fit Chadwick Boseman like an old baseball glove. What a devastating loss to cinematic art.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews, Sports
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