I’m (unofficially) a college graduate! Well, I technically finished all my coursework about a month ago, but I decided to take a spring break trip with my friend as a last hooray. It was an ASB service trip to New Orleans that was interesting, to say the least, but that’s a whole different story. When I arrived home a few weeks ago I couldn’t sleep, despite my fatigue from my early-morning flight. Of course my remedy was to watch a movie, so I decided to check out 42. I had been excited to see the film since first seeing the trailer in theaters; however, I never got around to it as I was studying abroad in Italy when it was released. After such a long wait, I was a bit disappointed by the lackluster film.
42 centers on Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking first season as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. The film begins with Branch Rickey’s decision to break the color barrier by hiring the first black baseball player with an MLB team–the Brooklyn Dodgers. To his credit, Harrison Ford, who plays Dodgers executive Rickey, is almost unrecognizable at first; however, his strange accent (or should I say attempt to sound old and Southern), combined with unclear character motivations, made watching the first 30 minutes of the film quite unbearable. The idea seemed to simply pop into Rickey’s head to hire a black player. Throughout the film we are given a variety of reasons such as increasing ticket sales by attracting black patrons and Rickey’s sense of moral correctness as a Methodist. The reasons for choosing Robinson, a relative unknown even in the Negro League, are also glossed over in a few sentences. He was from California, college-educated (meaning he had played with white men before), Christian, and had taken a stand against segregation and discrimination in the past–all things I didn’t know before watching the film.
New information such as this, along with his unique playing style which involved stealing bases often, kept me somewhat interested in the film (though I’m sure these tidbits were old news for baseball aficionados). I especially enjoyed Robinson, played by theatre-actor Chadwick Boseman, and his relationship with his wife Rachel Robinson. Nicole Beharie did an excellent job of showing Mrs. Robinson’s head-strong and intelligent nature, as well as the important role she played in supporting Robinson, particularly. I really appreciated that she was showcased as a major character; oftentimes women are reduced to objects or left out altogether in sports-centric films. The character of Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), an African-American journalist who befriends Robinson, was also a welcome surprise. Seeing the barriers Robinson broke down, as well as the impact he made so early in his career, not only on baseball, but other fields like sports journalism, was an aspect that I had not considered.
42, thankfully, did not shy away from the very apparent racism and violence Robinson was constantly confronting. From spring training in Florida to one very memorable game with the Phillies, racism and hatred met Robinson, and later his teammates, in every part of the country, both North and South. Watching Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) hurl racial slurs at Robinson, and seeing him breakdown into a fit of rage and tears in the dugout, definitely conveyed the emotional turmoil he experienced as a trailblazer. In another one of the films better moments, Rickey dismisses the concerns of Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), the Dodgers’ shortstop and a fan-favorite, after he receives one threatening piece of fan mail. Pee Wee puts his experience into perspective when Rickey opens a drawer full of hate mail addressed to Jackie. However, moments like these are hard to unearth in 42. Many of the film’s potentially powerful moments are undermined thanks to stiff dialogue and the very contrived and phony air of the film.
The score was overwhelming and too in-your-face (in a John Williams kind of way) for scenes as simple as a game during the pre-season. While it certainly helped emphasize that Robinson and other Americans, particularly black people, were well aware of his certain place in history, it was simply over-the-top. That’s not to say that the score never aided the film; the sweeping nature of the music worked quite well in the closing sequence where Robinson’s home run seals the Dodgers’ claim on the National League Pennant. The baseball scenes took up most of the screen time, and rightfully so; they were beautifully shot and made for the most engaging moments.
Though I am happy to see a positive and well-deserved film about an African-American icon, as well as up-and-coming black actors and actresses in said film, 42 was underwhelming. In short, the film tries too hard–to be grandiose, epic, and moving.