I believe that reviewers should disclose any bias they may have before they offer an opinion to their readers. So, I’ll divulge mine right up front: I’m a total baseball freak. If you give me a pen and paper, I can sit down and list 100 starting pitchers in baseball without breaking a sweat. I subscribe to MLB.tv so I can watch every game in the country. I go to baseball games two hours early so I can sit in the outfield seats and smell the freshly-cut grass. Baseball is a true passion of mine, so I’ll do my best not to let my bias influence my opinion of 42.
In 1945 after the end of World War II, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a controversial idea. He decided he was going to take a top player from the baseball Negro Leagues, bring him up gradually through the white minor leagues and, if all went according to plan, put him on the Brooklyn Dodgers professional team as the first black player in the major leagues. Why? To strike a blow for civil rights and reform? No. Because of the untapped market that a black audience would bring to the box office. As Rickey growls to his assistant in the movie, “Black dollars are just as green as white dollars.”
But, Branch Rickey understood that he didn’t necessarily need the best black player in the country. He needed the right black player: the one who had the character to withstand the hatred and resistance that would be directed at any effort to integrate baseball. He settled on a young shortstop who was a UCLA graduate, served as a commissioned officer in the United States military and just happened to be hitting .350 in the Negro Leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman).
After establishing that historical premise, 42 follows Jackie’s difficult rise to the major leagues and pulls no punches during the journey. Jackie was denied the use of restroom facilities, refused a room at the team hotel, inexplicably bumped from his plane flights, heckled mercilessly by the crowds and received death threats with casual regularity. The film doesn’t shy away from the racial slurs of the day, and the “n-word” makes a frequent appearance. In one pivotal scene, the manager for the visiting Philadelphia Phillies peppers Jackie with an unending onslaught of racial slurs and offensive comments that left the audience at my screening literally squirming in its seats. Praise should be given to Alan Tudyk for his brief role as the bigoted Phillies manager. He stares at Jackie with heartless eyes and delivers the barrage of racial insults like he is addressing an animal, not a man. Tudyk is on screen for less than ten minutes, and you hate the sight of him by the time he leaves. That’s a memorable supporting performance.
One of the movies strengths is its even-handedness. It’s far easier to portray the evil white men all aligned against the saintly black baseball player who overcomes the odds. Instead, there are moments that show that not everyone bought into segregation. In one scene, a white man in rural Florida approaches an apprehensive Jackie and surprisingly tells him that “some of us hope you make good, too.” Some of Jackie’s teammates who oppose the idea of a black man in the major leagues begin to come around on their way of thinking …. when the team begins to win. Even Branch Rickey’s initial motivation for integrating the sport is shown as financial, not ethical or moral.
42 is not without its flaws. There are moments that you will feel manipulated by the trumpet swells in the soundtrack that attempt to pluck at your heartstrings, and the small children looking at Jackie with exaggerated admiration. And while Chadwick Boseman gives an admirable performance as Jackie, he doesn’t have a lot to work with. The film portrays Jackie the Symbol rather than giving us a look at Jackie the Man. We know Jackie loves his wife, loves his child and loves baseball. Beyond that, there are only brief glimpses of what motivates Jackie Robinson to undertake this seemingly thankless task. The script gives us more insight into Branch Rickey than the actual subject of this bio pic.
Despite the difficult subject matter, the movie is family friendly and certain to spawn discussions about the way things used to be and just how far we have come as a nation in the area of race relations. Just after the first “n-word” of the film was uttered, a little boy behind me asked, “Momma, isn’t that a bad word?” His mother replied, “Yes, honey. But, this is history.” As a message movie, a history lesson and a conversation starter, I give 42 a 10 out of 10. As a motion picture drama, I give it…..
8 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.