Athletics unifies Americans in a way that few activities do. With the exceptions of church attendance, shopping, and voting, it is perhaps the most visible thread of a shared culture within our country. At the same time, athletics is occasionally a forum that settles events whose origins arise elsewhere. Brian Helgeland’s 42 narrates the story of how Jackie and Rachel Robinson, Wendell Smith, and Branch Rickey – to name a few prominent characters in a larger story – confronted racism in the United States by addressing segregation within America’s favorite pastime, baseball. The biopic, which grossed $27.4 million during the weekend, opening in the number slot. Moreover, the cast delivers earnest performances: Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson; Nicole Beharie, Rachel Robinson; and Harrison Ford, Branch Rickey. Given its emotional resonance and the intrinsic pull of its story, 42 delivers an adequate but underwhelming version of Robinson’s story.
The film’s primary territory extends from 1945 to 1947, covering Robinson’s stint with the Montreal Royals in 1946 and the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers season, which commenced with his Major League Baseball debut on April 15th, 1947. Of particular note, 42 highlights the story of Wendell Smith, the Pittsburgh Courier journalist who chronicles the pioneering Major League Baseball debut of Robinson. The film’s accent on the Robinson-Smith relationships highlights the fact that the emergence of Jackie Robinson is coterminous with the ascent of black sports journalists. The legend of Hank Aaron, for instance, is connected to the work of the black sports journalists. The movie, moreover, rightly implies that Robinson’s pioneering career cleared the pathway for future African-American players.
The film deserves credit for painting a relatively nuanced picture of racism in the 1940’s. The most effective scenes cover the polarities of racial anxiety and racial acceptance: one of the Robinson’s teammates refuses to continue his shower when Robinson enters the locker room; another teammate is initially afraid to be seen with Robinson, but eventually embraces the opportunity to play alongside him as a show of support for integration within baseball.
42 avoids exploring what Robinson’s legacy means for diversity within the MLB (particularly at the executive level) and the role of contemporary black athletes within our society. Additionally, by portraying wholly idealized versions of Robinson and Rickey, the film misses an opportunity to help audiences see how the aforementioned men are lauded for generally choosing virtue over vice – rather than being construed as transcendent racial heroes. Nevertheless, 42 is a feel good movie that performs the essential role of a biopic – its honors the life of its subject. It’s also family-friendly entertainment that displays an intact black marriage in a cinematic landscape that is largely devoid of those elements. Take your friends and loved ones to see the film and let us know what you think.