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42– Movie Review

Submitted by on April 15, 2013 – 3:10 pmOne Comment

Along with Lincoln, the movie 42 could bookend recent entertaining but awkward films for a nation still uncomfortable confronting its racial history. Though they are on very different levels, the two movies share much in common: their historical environments are detailed and engaging, the surrounding events and characters are much more interesting than the two-dimensional stoics at their cores, white men are largely responsible for freeing people, and racism appears to have no lingering effects thanks to the hero’s self-sacrifice.

42 is the dramatization of the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball. The film takes place during the 1945-1947 seasons, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a minor league affiliate, and then to the Dodgers themselves. Along the way, Robinson struggles to maintain dignity in the face of virulent racism, from baseball fans, opponents, and even his own teammates.

As others have noted, 42 is a fine movie for younger generations that might not know the story of Jackie Robinson or the context of race in the post-war US. It simultaneously educates and entertains: though not stunning, the historical costumes and set designs are eye-catching, the pace keeps up, and there is obviously plenty of baseball. The film really shines in its kinetic camera work during games, speeding along with Jackie’s feet as he steals third and showing him slide from underneath (as if through plexiglass).

But for deeper meaning on the nature of equality and the character of a hero, 42 offers oversimplification and even troubling implications. That damn musical score must have swelled to a sentimental climax three times in the first fifteen minutes alone, telegraphing just how heroic the moments were, even when the dialogue implied something more complex and practical. (They couldn’t get Jay-Z for more than just the trailer?) The cocky, testy, funny (i.e. interesting) Robinson we see at the beginning of the film disappears early on, replaced by Superman, except for one scene-chewing tantrum (handled as well as could be by Chadwick Boseman). Rachel (Nicole Beharie), Robinson’s wife, hardly appears with even a sour look or a hair out of place despite raising a child by herself while her husband gets beaned and her whole family gets death threats. The suffering of Christ is invoked onscreen repeatedly, just in case you didn’t get the message. Are all “heroes” so beyond the reach of mere mortals?

Along with religion, 42 offers two other major arguments for equality: money and baseball. Black or white, everyone’s money is green, growls Rickey (Harrison Ford). A box score is democratic, writes Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), whom we see entirely too little off. The message that a man should be measured by his abilities and not his skin color has a lot of merits, but it made me wonder- what about the people who provide neither worship nor dollars nor RBIs?

Finally, the film wraps up racism in a neat little package. The film’s coda tells us that the wicked are reformed, or punished (with exile to Pittsburgh); the good are rewarded with World Series rings.

As monumental as Robinson’s achievements were, they were a beginning of work that is still in progress.

Did you see 42? What did you think?

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