42 thoroughly encapsulates what an inspirational sports drama can be, namely respectful, historically relevant, emotionally powerful, and above all, immensely entertaining. It tells the true story of Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, which in turn made him the first African American of the modern era to break the color line in Major League Baseball. It’s now widely accepted that his career, highlighted by the 1955 World Series, six consecutive All-Star Games, and his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, played a significant role in advancing the Civil Rights Movement. His uniform number, forty-two, was officially retired in 1997 by all major league teams, making him the first pro athlete in any sport to receive that honor.
Robinson is portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, who may finally start getting recognition even at this early stage of his acting career. As Robinson, we see a man who isn’t looking to be a pioneer; he merely wants to play ball. He’s finally given that chance through baseball executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who’s motivated to give Robinson a chance partly out of guilt for not standing up on behalf of an African American player years earlier, before Rickey became an executive. But he’s also motivated out of genuine obligation to give the best and brightest talents a shot at greatness. Prior to being a part of the Dodgers, Robinson was a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro league team that frustrated Robinson due to its disorganization and its embrace of gambling interests.
When Robinson is plucked up by Rickey while travelling with his team by bus, Rickey stresses that, if he’s going to be in Major League Baseball, he must learn to look past the racism that will inevitably plague him. It might sound as if he wanted Robinson to not stand up for himself, but that wasn’t the case at all; Rickey knew perfectly well that, if Robinson were to lose his temper and fight back, it would only confirm his perceived inferiority in the minds of ignorant whites. It would also be the only aspect of his character written about in sports pages. Sure enough, Robinson is repeatedly taunted and harassed by spectators, townspeople, sportscasters, players from opposing teams, and even a few of his own teammates, some of whom start a petition to get him fired. But he heeds Rickey’s advice, in part for his own sake but mostly for the sake of his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), and their infant son.
The manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, played with convincing bigotry by Alan Tudyk, is unquestionably the most vocal of Robinson’s opponents. Unlike most of the other racist characters, who are easy to ignore simply because they behave exactly the way we expect them to, Chapman is a genuinely loathsome figure, a pro athlete spewing hatred and ignorance to such an extreme that it truly does make one uncomfortable listening to him. The upside is that his racism had the exact opposite effect; it generated sympathy for Robinson in many circles, and it prompted the Dodgers to rally behind him. In real life, Chapman’s opposition to Robinson would quickly overshadow his career in Major League Baseball and probably contributed to his firing from the Phillies in 1948 – although the fact that his team fell to seventh place during the 1947 season didn’t do him any favors.
One must question the inclusion of a minor subplot involving Dodgers shortstop Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) and the ramifications of his philandering. Had this been a film about the entirely of the Dodgers during that period of time, perhaps then it would mean something. But because this is a biopic about Jackie Robinson, nothing of significance comes of it. Ford’s performance is also likely to divide audiences, in spite of his character’s innate likeability and good moral convictions. Some will see it as bold and engaging, while others will think that, because he relies on an exaggeratedly gruff voice, he’s overplaying it just a touch. I honestly don’t know where I stand on the issue. I do know that I responded well to what his character stood for, which must count for something.
The single best scene of 42 is not the big game at the end, which all inspirational sports dramas build towards, but one that perfectly epitomizes how racism is perpetuated. During a game, when Robinson goes up to bat, a man in the grandstand starts booing and yelling out racial slurs. With this man is his son, who can’t be more than ten or eleven years old; he looks at his father, then looks around at the other booing spectators, and although he seems genuinely unsure what to make of what he’s hearing, he joins in and starts yelling out slurs. Of all the messages one can glean from this film, the most important, I believe, is that we are capable of deciding when and where a legacy of prejudice can end. I’m not convinced that boy truly believed the hateful things he was saying. In that moment, he was merely conforming, as children tend to do. As he grows older, one can only hope he will come into his own.
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Warner Bros. Pictures