Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the world of Major League Baseball is a seminal moment in American history and a story that most Americans are at least vaguely familiar with. 42 attempts to tell that story in a way that honors the legendary status of Robinson, but in the process fails to give us a real sense of who Jackie was as a person or the weight of the adversity he had to face.
Let me be upfront and say that 42 is a perfectly fine movie. It’s fairly well directed, features a talented cast, and lays on just the right amount of schmaltz to be entertaining and, at times, somewhat moving. With the exception of Harrison Ford, playing Brooklyn Dodgers exec Branch Rickey, most of the cast is made up of actors who have made a career in television rather than features, and just about everyone turns in a solid performance. Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson and successfully gives the character both an energy and a sincere love of baseball. Ford, as I mentioned, plays Branch Rickey, the Dodgers Executive who made the decision to break the race barrier and handpicked Robinson to be the first African American player in Major League Baseball, and Ford brings more to the table in this film than he has in many of his more recent roles. He’s gruff while simultaneously being charming, and you can tell that Ford is having some fun with the role. There are some other solid performances from the rest of the supporting cast, but Nicole Beharie, playing Jackie’s wife Rachel, is the standout among the supporting cast as far as I’m concerned. She has a wonderful chemistry with Boseman and their relationship is absolutely one of the film’s strongest aspects.
Despite the strengths I just mentioned the film suffers mostly from a lack of ambition. It tells the story that everybody knows in a way that doesn’t challenge expectations. Characters are portrayed in absolute black and white morality; good characters are unwaveringly moral while bad characters are despicable to their very core. Whether it’s Rickey being essentially baseball’s version of Abraham Lincoln (there are at least three different effigies of Lincoln scattered around his office in case you were having trouble drawing that parallel), or the way that it takes certain characters and turns them into over-the-top cartoon villains complete with a children’s book comeuppance.*
I understand the sentiment was to try to honor the legendary status of Jackie Robinson by painting him as a hero without fault pitted against the evils of racism, but in my opinion going for this moral simplicity robs Robinson of his most heroic qualities. Robinson stood up not only in support of the sport that he loved but also for the rights of his people and in the process faced tremendous amounts of hate and abuse, yet in order to be effective he had to not only be a great ball player, but show extraordinary restraint against the people who threatened and abused him. The film, however, rarely deals with this struggle in any meaningful way. We see the cruelty that he faced, and we see the grace with which he handled it, but the film avoids playing on the internal turmoil that he had to deal with. One of the most effective scenes in the film is when Robinson retreats from the field after a particularly nasty experience and proceeds to vent his frustrations on the wall of the hallway leading to the dugout using the business end of a baseball bat. If the film gave us more time to really feel Robinson’s frustration it could have been more insightful.
The film seems hesitant to humanize these characters for fear of betraying Robinson’s legacy, but they miss the fact that his humanity is precisely what made him so heroic.
42 is an imperfect, but enjoyable film. It paints the story of Jackie Robinson with simplicity rather than nuance, but it still manages to be nostalgic, funny, and even moving at moments. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, except perhaps kids who are hearing this story for the first time. In fact, despite the PG-13 rating families with kids are who I would most readily recommend this film to. Aside from the persistent use of the word “nigger” due to the setting and subject matter there’s not a lot in this film that merits a rating higher than PG.
*This gets a bit tricky because the film is based on a true story, and therefore some credibility must be given to the “comeuppance” that these characters receive, however, the way it comes across in the movie feels very trimmed down and over simplified in order to give it that storybook happy ending quality. It’s not so much that these things are inaccurate, it’s merely that they lack nuance.