Sure, it’s self-conscious dramatism: cue the stirring music, slow-mo the
star crossing home plate, show the beautiful, adoring wife smiling in the
stands. But at the end of this movie the audience actually does cheer. It’s
that stirring. And we hope it’s more for the quality of re-telling this
familiar story than for the thinly-veiled self-congratulatory smugness of
“we’ve come such a long way since then.” But have we, really? Or are we
only apparently more equal, with ugly racism still lurking in the shadows,
only more hidden?
“42” takes up the Jackie Robinson story from 1944, when he was playing
with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, and baseball was still
segregated. Far-seeing Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the owner of the
Brooklyn Dodgers, thought that especially in light of the black American
military participation in World War II, that it was time for major league
baseball to be integrated at last. But he knew that old habits---and
attitudes---died hard. He knew that the first black player would have to be
very special: not only an exceptional athlete, but someone possessing enormous
personal character, someone who could take all the anticipated abuse, and just
play the game. And let his performance speak for itself.
Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) was nearly perfect for this exacting role.
True, he’d had a brush with the military police while with the Marines,
because he refused to sit at the back of the bus. But that only underscored
his deep-seated conviction about the necessity of equal treatment. He was a
veteran, he was married to Rachel (Nicole Beharie) a dignified and elegant and
beautiful young woman who was going to unconditionally support him, and if
anyone had enough inner strength to not let the critics get him down, it was
this remarkable young man.
Predictably, it was never easy. Taunts from players and coaches on the other
team. Unequal treatment by umpires. Hotels that refused to let him stay there.
Restaurants that refused to serve the whole team. Catcalls from the stands.
Even a petition from his own teammates. Opposing pitchers throwing at his head
(and they didn’t wear protective helmets back then). Even random passersby
on the street joined in the heckling and threatening. And yes, it’s
difficult to watch. None of us are proud of this embarrassing chapter of
recent American history. And this movie, predictably, lays it on pretty thick,
including the “whites only” bathrooms, which shocks Rachel so much that
she protests by using one. (Although showing her as a Californian being
surprised by Southern racism is a bit disingenuous, in light of the
Japanese-American interment camps in California during the War, but that only
demonstrates how easily racism can be ignored when it’s not happening to
Of course, the problem with any film about major-league baseball is that real
actors can’t play that well, and real baseball players can’t act that
well. Here, the quality of the baseball leaves something to be desired, but at
least the acting doesn’t get in the way. The makers of “42” probably
miss the mark a bit when they make the language---and the racial epithets---so
intense that the film is rated PG-13, which will prevent many children from
seeing it. But this is a part of 20th-century American history which children
should know. Every baseball fan understands that the number 42 can no longer
be assigned to any player, and one day a year, every player in major league
baseball wears number 42 as a tribute. Every kid in America should know why.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving,