By-the-Numbers 42 Still Hits for the Cycle
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2013 11 Apr
DVD Release Date: July 16, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: April 12, 2013
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including language
Run Time: 128 min.
Director: Brian Helgeland
Actors: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Behari, Christopher Melonie, John C. McGinley, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black
The pressure on the makers of 42—the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in the major leagues—was great. The film would need to honor a story sacred to baseball fans and history buffs. Could they bring Robinson’s story to life without falling into drab stereotypes, portraying Robinson as strong rather than subservient to all-white league players and officials? Could they let Robinson’s inspirational accomplishments speak for themselves, without taking on the tone of a powder-keg racial drama? And would they be able to sidestep Hollywood’s tendency to tell important stories of African-American triumph through the eyes of a Caucasian lead character? (Read more about the making of the movie here.)
42 doesn’t avoid every possible pitfall. Although it includes a breakout lead performance from Chadwick Boseman as Robinson (the actor is primarily known—if known at all—for his work on TV), it also includes Harrison Ford (Cowboys & Aliens) in the key supporting role of Brooklyn Dodgers' General Manager Branch Rickey. That bit of casting is commercially savvy—a huge (if aging) star that should ensure a racially diverse audience for 42—but risks emphasizing Rickey’s against-the-grain boldness over Robinson’s athleticism and determination.
Those are real concerns for how 42 will be perceived. Rickey’s story is as prominent as Robinson’s, and that may understandably put off viewers who want to know more about Robinson’s accomplishments. The film also chooses to end early in Robinson’s career, packing the rest of Robinson’s accomplishments into a closing-moments wrap-up. However, if the audience reaction at the recent preview screening is any indication, the filmmakers’ balancing act will prove satisfying to most viewers.
The film opens in 1945, with a reminder that black veterans of World War II returned to an America to face racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. Rickey, GM of the Dodgers, knows it’s time for things to change. He decides it’s time for a baseball player to join the all-white National League rather than the Negro Leagues, and he chooses to recruit Robinson to his minor league team in Montreal. If all goes as planned, that sting will lead to a starting position for Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Rickey faces instant skepticism from team officials who warn him about the trashing Rickey will get in the press, but Rickey is motivated to some degree by a divine calling. "Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist," he says. He orders that Robinson be brought into the organization.
Robinson tells Rickey he’s up to the challenge of integrating baseball, but the player’s reputation as hot-tempered concerns the GM. "I want a player who will have the guts not to fight back," Rickey tells Robinson, reminding him that his "enemy will be out in force."
Those enemies include Robinson’s own teammates, several of whom sign a petition saying they won’t take the field with a Negro. That plan is quashed by the team’s manager, Leo Durocher (Christopher Melonie), who, like Rickey, knows integration of the sport could be the key to the league’s long-term financial success.
42 never shies away from less-than-admirable motives for major league integration (Rickey notes that the only color that matters in baseball is green), but it also gives Rickey's cause a moral urgency. Rickey believes God is on his side in the matter, at one point berating an opposing manager for threatening to boycott a game if Robinson takes the field. Rickey reminds the other man that he’ll one day have to stand before God and explain his actions.
Rickey’s moral concerns also extend to sexual ethics. He reminds Durocher, who’s involved in an extra-marital affair, of the Bible’s teaching on adultery, and the film shows how such moral failings can catch up with us in publicly embarrassing ways.
By contrast, Robinson is depicted as virtuous, if tending toward anger at his constant mistreatment. He precedes a proposal to his wife (Nicole Behari) by reminding her they’ve "always done the right thing," and he promises his infant son he’ll never abandon him the way Robinson’s father walked out on his family.
42 is similar to The Blind Side, a well performed story about a black athlete who benefits from the intercession of a sympathetic white protagonist. Like The Blind Side, faith is integral to the story, and is presented unapologetically. And like The Blind Side, the film is rated PG-13 with some content that isn’t appropriate for all ages. That’s a shame, because the film’s lessons should appeal to viewers too young for some of the film’s more mature moments.
Parents should exercise discretion in deciding which, if any, of their kids see 42, but they can take some confidence in knowing that the film’s lessons in decency, fairness and biblical authority come through loud and clear. Like The Blind Side, 42 may be dismissed by many critics, but like that earlier film, it should find a receptive public. And if 42, like The Blind Side, ends up a year-end awards contender, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise either.
- Language/Profanity: Racist taunts and epithets throughout; “son of a b--ch”; “screw you”; “Judas priest!” “I’ll smash his go-d-mn teeth in”; “piece of s-it”; “what in satan’s fire does he want?”; “ba-tard”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Drinking; a man asks, “You been drinking?” and a character responds, “I wish”
- Sex/Nudity: Leo is shown in bed, under covers, with a woman who drapes herself around him; Leo is later shown in bed, in his underwear; kissing; men in locker room are shirtless or wrapped in towels; Robinson stands shirtless by a hotel window, and Rachel approaches him and kisses him; Robinson shown in his boxer shorts, and from the waist up in a locker-room shower
- Violence/Crime: Robinson is said to have been court-martialed, but Rickey believes the charge was unjust; reckless driving; a violent collision at home plate; a pitch to the head; and on-field melee; letters to managers and players include death threats
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Rickey proclaims his Methodism, and is drawn to Robinson, who’s also a Methodist; Rickey says God is a Methodist; Rickey asks Robinson if he has “the guts” to turn the other cheek; Rickey encourages Robinson to put “the fear of God” into opposing players; Robinson marries Rachel, and they have a child; Robinson says his father left him when he was an infant, but he’ll always be there for his child; Robinson says, “God built me to last,” and Rickey repeats that declaration about Robinson later; Rickey says the Bible tells us eight times to love our neighbors as ourselves; Rickey and Leo both claim that money is the bottom line for why they’re bringing Robinson to the team; a Catholic group threatens to boycott the Dodgers over Leo’s moral failings; Rickey tells Robinson he’s “the one living the sermon, in the wilderness”; Rickey challenges a racist manager to consider how he’ll explain himself on the day he faces God and accounts for his actions
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: April 12, 2013