“42” isn’t yet again trying to prove to white people that racism is alive and well; it’s merely trying to depict the racial struggles of Jackie Robinson, an undisputed American hero. But it’s 2013, and we deserve better than another magical black man movie, and we definitely deserve a better, smarter film than Director and Screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s (“L.A. Confidential“) cheesy, Old Hollywood inspired script.
Robinson was one of baseball’s greatest legends. He won Rookie of the Year in his inaugural 1947 season, the pennant for the Dodgers and later in his career the World Series. But “42” paints Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) as a miracle man long before credit is due.
The movie starts with a newsreel history lesson and says that America was just waiting for someone like Robinson to come along. Then a grizzly GM played by Harrison Ford in a bad haircut looks his bumbling assistants in the eye and boldly claims he’s going to put the first black man in baseball! “Uh wahhh? You can’t! But I can!” Then he flips through a few manila folders and finds a resume with Jackie Robinson’s picture and says something close to, “Look at this guy! He’s going to be a star!”
“If it was a white baseball player, you’d say he has spirit” is what Ford actually says when his assistant claims he has a bad temper. But Robinson’s bad temper amounts to him being a little less tolerant of racism directed at him than others. His goal to be accepted is to focus on winning, not the hate, which makes for the first sports movie in which strictly focusing on being the best is the moral lesson.
It’s merely content in saying that Robinson overcame adversity not by growing personally but by focusing on winning and turning a cold shoulder to anyone who thought to insult him. “42” never shows any of Robinson’s failures on or off the field. It shows him getting close to lashing out, but this only comes about as “42” ups the ante in its string of abusive, racial slur set pieces.
We see scene after scene of random fans, ball players and townspeople throwing out more N-words than “Django Unchained,” and yet “42” has nothing to say about Jackie’s family, nothing to say about the country’s political or cultural climate and nothing to add to the conversation about race relations.
In fact the white characters seem to face as much adversity and experience even more growth and redemption. Tribulations of players receiving death threats, trying to come to terms with showering with a black man and being turned away from a hotel receive as much dramatic heft as any of Robinson’s.
But the fact that Robinson’s most exciting victories are stolen bases and not racial ones speak to the film’s flimsy, cornball storytelling. It plays as a series of fortune cookie lectures and slow motion heroics. The whole film is shot with that dusty, sepia tone look that “Moneyball” proved should never be used in a baseball movie again.
A biopic needn’t say why an already accepted hero was so great. It should present someone with warts and all to show how he represents someone worth aspiring to. Although this isn’t usually the context this expression is used, “42” fails to realize that Jackie Robinson was a man, not a number.