For the entire United States, the integration of professional baseball was both a triumph and watershed breakthrough after over 150 years during which people of color were characterized as creatures of inferiority. But I really wasn’t that pleased with “42.” Despite all the human drama and inspiration that exists in the facts of this achievement, “42” depicts this true story in ways that seem to patronize its audience.
The toughest thing about watching it was that I felt like I was being treated like the lowest common denominator. Every tough scene and anecdote seemed to build toward a small victory for Robinson or realization about the errors of racism, and rarely ever ended without a witty remark to encourage a chuckle from the audience. It all amounted to a movie that was formulaic and corny. The feel-good mantra crowded-out something that should have made this a powerful retelling of our history.
If I had to guess what was obscured, I would say honesty. Since as early as I can remember, I have been an obsessive baseball fanatic. I read and watched anything I could get my hands on about the game. A good chunk of that material discussed Jackie Robinson, the segregation of baseball, and the various Negro leagues, teams and players. I learned that the Jackie Robinson story was actually very hard, depressing, and even dangerous.
Robinson played that first year with the weight of an entire race of Americans on his shoulders. In Seattle Magazine, Ryan Whirty recently described how, even in our region, African Americans clamored for news about Robinson’s fight to help turn the tide of racism for all black people. That kind of pressure should have haunted and nearly defeated any one person. Though in this depiction, Robinson rarely slumps either in will or with the bat and the putrid morals of his opponents are always reformed.
Most of the acting was serviceable and Alan Tudyk is a show-stopper playing irritating Phillies manager, Ben Chapman; but I was very let-down by the writing for Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Branch Rickey. Rickey’s gruffness is over-acted in “42” and he becomes a one-dimensional, no-nonsense evangelist for the cause of integrating the major leagues. It is his only mission. Rickey seems far more authentic when he tells Robinson that the reason he’s determined to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball is that he has his eye on several other black players that might help the team win.
Rickey in real life was a shrewd baseball man and would break any unwritten rule if it would help his team win. While running the St. Louis Cardinals, he originated the practice of running a farm system of minor league teams; he was the first general manager to hire a statistician to evaluate player performance and he was the first to promote the use of on-base percentage as a better indication of hitting productivity than batting average. Ford doesn’t begin to do proper justice to the genius of Branch Rickey.
For me, the thing that kept it from being a waste of an afternoon was how the movie captured the game on the field. Very few baseball movies, even the best ones, truly capture the speed and grace of the game. Pitches buzz Robinson’s chin at forceful velocities the way they do in real pro baseball, and the defenders in the field are both athletic as acrobats and nimble as ballet dancers. Recreations of 1940’s era ballparks like Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Shibe Park and Crosley Field are the most magnificent I’ve ever seen, and I’ve played a lot of baseball video games. They’re all color-rich and blasted with the bright light of the summer sun in ways that make a nostalgic heart sing.
“42” should have been a great movie. If it had just stuck with the facts and was written to depict the truth rather than trying to make everyone in the theater feel comfortable I would have been impressed. Instead, I felt condescended to by a Hollywood movie machine.