By Arturo R. García
There are moments when 42 succeeds in conveying some of the hatred Jackie Robinson fought as his major league baseball career began. Unfortunately for writer/director Brian Helgeland, most of them come when the script and the score get out of Chadwick Boseman’s way.
As Robinson, Boseman boosts Helgeland’s script, giving the young Dodger glimpses of the world-weariness that a more comprehensive account of Robinson’s journey would have provided viewers.
Instead, for better or worse, Helgeland steers the story more in the direction of The Natural, with Robinson cast as a diamond in the rough, plucked from the Negro Leagues by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) over more established names like Satchel Paige because of his youth. Left unsaid: Rickey neither paid the Kansas City Monarchs for poaching their player nor went about his efforts alone; the team’s board of directors also gave him the green light to steal, so to speak in 1943, years before the movie begins.
Nor was Robinson alone early on; in real life, Homestead Grays pitcher John Wright was also at spring training with Robinson in 1946. Even if Wright flamed out, his absence is another costly bit of shorthand.
Instead, the film boils down to the Robinson & Rickey Story, and turns Rickey into more of a coach for Robinson than his actual (substitute) manager, Burt Shotton (Max Gail). In another cheat, the viewer is “spared” much of the prejudice hurled against Robinson in favor of exposition from Rickey: we’re told, for example, that Robinson has been hit by pitches more than anybody in the National League, but we’re not shown any of it; this within seconds of Rickey responding to Pee Wee Reese’s (Lucas Black) complaint about one racist letter against him by pulling out folders full of written bile against the rookie.
“Of course Jackie knows,” Rickey tells Reese. But we never see Robinson open any of those letters, or even get the impression that we has. And, again, this can’t be attributed to a lack of capability on Boseman’s part; his Robinson is cocky but smart, romantic — Boseman and Nicole Beharie should helm their own rom-com ASAP — but resolved, and when the story finally allows him to break, following a horrific diatribe by Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), he propels the film into delivering, however briefly, as chilling a portrait of prejudice and its effect as Quentin Tarantino probably thinks he does.
As ESPN noted, while it’s true that Robinson’s rookie year went mostly underreported, there was at least one resource seemingly deemphasized both on-screen and off: sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who actually ghost-wrote a column for Robinson in the Pittsburgh Courier (and a subsequent book about the ’47 season) but doesn’t get more characterization in the film than being his driver and herald. And, most importantly of all, as Think Progress points out, it was Smith who recommended Robinson to Rickey in the first place.
And keep in mind, these are just stories that could have been explored during the film’s timeline of 1945-47. Colorlines’ Jamilah King offered a glimpse of what a fuller biography could have covered:
In a 1963 letter to Malcolm X, Robinson wrote, “America is not perfect by a long shot, but I happen to like it here and will do all I can to help make it the kind of place where my chlildren and theirs can live in dignity.”
To that end, Robinson worked hard. He served on the boards of the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality, led rallies at the invitation of civil rights leaders, and accepted the first vice presidency of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s PUSH Coalition. In 1973, shortly after Robinson’s death, his widow, Rachel, founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which to this day offers four-year scholarships and professional development training to black students.
In a time where entire trilogies get approved on the mere hopes that the first installment becomes a “tentpole,” the fact that 42 posted the best opening weekend for a baseball movie ever suggests that there is — that there can be more of — a market for films like it. Here’s to hoping future attempts trust audiences to be able to handle their subject’s best asset: their truths.