42‘s in sort of a funny position. In telling the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball, it could easily be a feel-good-a-thon for white Americans. It could talk about how the good integrationists triumphed over the Jim-Crow-loving segregationists because they were just better people, goshdarnit, and show Robinson and his fellow Brooklyn Dodgers hitting home runs into the sunset as the crowd roars (roll credits). This would be neither true nor honest, but the grand tradition of films made by white people telling the stories of black people (see also: The Help, The Blind Side) hasn’t given too many fucks about truth or honesty as long as it doesn’t make white people too uncomfortable.
For a Hollywood movie made by white people, 42 doesn’t actually give that many fucks about making white people uncomfortable. As told here, the story of Jackie Robinson is one of forbearance. It is a story of fighting bigotry with dignity not because dignity is better than the alternative but because it’s the only option that isn’t guaranteed to backfire spectacularly. It’s a story of turning the other cheek again and again, and of the cost that exacts. Robinson is never a saint. He’s a man making a devil’s bargain, choosing to put himself in a cage for the chance to live his dream – and maybe change the world along the way.
Robinson is played by supernaturally handsome Chadwick Boseman (whose looks are all the more astounding because he’s a virtual unknown, seemingly dropped into this film from the planet of really really ridiculously good-looking people). Boseman is remarkable. I don’t see an Oscar in his future because Hollywood politics newcomer sports movie blah blah blah, but when he doesn’t get nominated come January you can bet I’ll be screaming about how he was robbed. His Robinson is a proud man, not a little bit angry about the disrespect he faces every day, who is challenged to integrate baseball and take the abuse guaranteed to come with it without fighting back. He’s barely contained. He knows his responsibilities – to himself, to his wife and child, to his community – and he knows what he represents, but none of that makes it any easier to put up with the abuse he faces for the cardinal sin of playing baseball while black.
There are a lot of ways that abuse, and the impact it had on its target, could have been depicted. A standard choice would have been a montage, or a collection of short scenes showing Robinson being harassed at a game, on the street, on a boat, with a goat, while eating green eggs and ham, and so on and so forth. 42 does something different. It chooses to spend a significant chunk of time on one incident in one baseball game and let it carry the majority of the burden of demonstrating the bigotry Robinson faced.
The Dodgers are playing the Philadelphia Phillies. Robinson is at bat when the Phillies’ manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk, in an abrupt departure from, oh, anything else he’s done ever), steps out of the dugout and launches into a vicious and unrelenting torrent of slurs. I have never heard the n word so many times in my life. The abuse is non-stop from the moment Robinson comes to the plate. No one says or does anything to stop it. And we watch as it has the desired effect: it winds Robinson up. The Phillies’ pitcher is fucking with him, intentionally throwing hard-to-hit pitches aimed more at hitting Robinson than striking him out, and that combined with his evident anger causes him to foul out three times in a row. He returns to the dugout. One or two Dodgers make half-hearted overtures, but most of them say nothing. Robinson sits alone. The abandonment by his team is palpable.
He comes to bat again. Again, Chapman is there, spewing invective. Again, the pitcher is fucking with him. Again, Robinson’s rage is growing, and again, he fouls out. This time, instead of returning to the dugout, he takes his bat and goes to the tunnel leading to the dugout.
And he begins to scream.
Boseman screams like an animal caught in a trap, and with every scream, he slams his bat into the wall, shattering it, then shattering the shattered stump that remains. Finally, he collapses to the ground, gasping and sobbing, utterly confined by his situation. The man responsible for Robinson’s presence on the Dodgers, general manager Branch Rickey, approaches, but Robinson shoves him away, growling his intentions towards the next white person who opens his mouth.
It’s an incredibly powerful scene that does more with one long anecdote than it could with ten shorter ones. And while Rickey’s appearance at the end, ready to comfort Robinson while spouting platitudes, serves to protect white viewers from their own consciences, the impact has already been made. The gut punch has been delivered. If you’re a white person, you’re uncomfortable. As you fucking should be.
42 wouldn’t be a film about race in America if it didn’t have a right-thinking white protagonist for audience members to ally themselves with when they get too uncomfortable, and that role is filled by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, whose gruffness has hit self-parody, barreled right on past it, and is now swinging for the fences). As far as I can tell, Rickey seems to have been a genuinely progressive guy whose integration of the MLB seems to have been motivated at least in part by a sincere desire for justice. That said, making him the film’s racial conscience is a pretty clear sop to white viewers whose tolerance for the naked bigotry of our not-too-distant past, and its evocations of the only-slightly-less-naked bigotry still live in America today, is minimal. On the up side, this allows the majority of the film’s most heavy-handed platitudes to come out of his mouth, allowing the other white characters, and their relationships with Robinson, more dimensionality.
In terms of the target audience for 42, I’m about as far from it as you can get: I don’t like biopics, don’t care much about baseball, and am not particularly interested in Jackie Robinson. But as you can tell, it got me. It got me with Boseman’s raw, honest, angry, and all too human performance as Robinson. It got me with beautiful cinematography, particularly the baseball scenes (those were so exciting they had audience members in my theater cheering like they were in a bar). But mostly it got me by not totally fucking up the racial dynamics. Realistically, it’s a film written and directed by a white man in a white-dominated industry for distribution to a majority-white national audience. It was never going to be the Little Radical Race Film That Could. But for a film written and directed by a white man in a white-dominated industry for distribution to a majority-white audience, it is a good deal more honest about America’s racial tensions than I expected. And for the most part, it’s okay with making white people uncomfortable.