The following is a combination of two reviews on the movie 42 by Adam Hintz and Stephanie Liscio. Adam focused on a general review of the movie, while Stephanie looked at the historical accuracy of the film.
Like many of you, I had the opportunity this past weekend to see 42, the new movie about Jackie Robinson’s first season in the Major Leagues. Objectively, I found the film to be worthwhile, albeit not without flaws. More importantly, however, I think that the movie serves an important purpose for the newest generation of baseball fans (myself included) that has never experienced the horrific realities of racism in baseball firsthand.
Many of the reviews for 42 that I’ve read over the weekend agree that the movie is not hard-hitting enough and does not adequately wrestle with the big issues that Jackie faced and that it does not delve very deeply into Jackie Robinson as a person. On one hand, these are legitimate criticisms (it is best to say that 42 offers an unflinching glimpse of racism in baseball), but movie does hit the important notes at the important times and the message that it delivers to the viewer is powerful; it is certainly hard to leave the theater without feeling inspired by the story and the characters. Viewed in this way, the movie can only be considered a success, both commercially and as a storytelling medium, but it is not without faults.
For most of the film, the So What question remains unanswered; we know as an audience that what Jackie Robinson is doing is important, but the story doesn’t explicitly tell us why until we get to the scene (more on this in a moment). When Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) brings Jackie into his office to discuss signing him to join the Dodger organization, he explains that he needs a player who has the guts to not fight back in the face of scathing racism. Director Brian Helgeland, however, shields the audience from the worst of the racism that Robinson faced; most of what we see Robinson endure is obviously appalling but fails to really strike a crucial empathetic note.
For example, in one scene a security guard/police officer tells Jackie he can’t play a Spring Training game because it is against the law for a Negro to play with white boys. This is an example like many in the movie, where we see one man or one small group aligned against Jackie, which does not adequately reflect the overwhelmingly negative environments that Robinson was exposed to early on in his career. The few scenes where Helgeland manages to depict racism as commonplace (for those who haven’t seen the movie: you will know the scenes when you see them) are suffocating and cringeworthy, and the audience actually feels claustrophobic helplessness as the protagonist has gallon after gallon of crude racism heaped upon him. It is in these scenes that the movie is ultimately redeemed and the message delivered to the audience, for we emerge back out into the world truly grateful that we have moved beyond the dark days of our history.
It is in this relief that the audience is left with that the importance of this film truly comes into focus. For a growing majority of baseball fans (beginning with my parents’ generation and continuing into today), racism is not something we associate with the sport; the game has been seamlessly integrated for as long as any of us can remember and the horrors that Robinson, Doby, and others faced have faded into the backdrop of history. When this movie really succeeds (and what amounts to the critical scene of the movie), it transports the viewer to Shibe Park in Philadelphia to bear firsthand witness to the maddening depravity of racism, leaving the viewer unable to do anything but squirm helplessly in their seat. The scene I am referring to (I won’t spoil the details for those who haven’t seen it) goes on for an uncomfortably long time and it is exactly for that reason that it is essential to the message of the film.
For viewers of my generation (and even of my parents’ generation), this film is an eye-opening experience that will truly put into perspective what racism looked like when the game we all love started to integrate. For all the considerable criticism that Django Unchained faced from critics and racial groups for its liberal use of a certain racial epithet, the racial slurs used in 42 seem appropriate and necessary in order to get the message across. That message: racism and discrimination are not issues of a singular person or a singular entity, but rather issues for all of society to face as one. This is not a film about Jackie Robinson, or Pee Wee Reese, or Branch Rickey, or any of the other individuals who had a hand in Jackie’s debut and Hall of Fame career in baseball. This is a film about an era, and how change is hard and cannot be caused by any one man.
On Monday, April 15th we celebrate the career and accomplishments of Jackie Robinson, and this movie certainly changed the way that I think about how the league honors one of its greatest heroes. Before seeing this movie, I didn’t really like the way Jackie Robinson Day has evolved in baseball; I thought it diluted the message if every player on the field donned 42. I realize now that the significance of Jackie’s achievement is not diluted by having every player wear it, but the message is instead amplified by the show of solidarity. Throughout the film it is all-too-apparent that Jackie is a divisive figure and a lightning rod for hatred, but when every major leaguer dons that #42 jersey on Monday, the vision for a united and accepting future for baseball will be reaffirmed and realized. This is the legacy of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby: a league (and perhaps a world) in which all are born on equal footing and judged by their ability and knowledge rather than external factors outside of their control.
With that said, I heartily recommend 42 to any interested viewer. As a film it has its hits and misses, but the important message of the story eventually wins out. That message is one of tolerance, acceptance, and kindness, and it is one that we can ill-afford to forget about as we move into the future.
I was honestly afraid to see 42 at first. I can be very stubborn when it comes to a movie depicting a historical event, or a film based on a book – just ask anyone who has had to listen to me go on a tirade about some of the adaptations of the Harry Potter books. The trailer, which has been on television for several months, depicted a scene in which Jackie Robinson flipped his bat in the air after hitting a home run. This piece of showmanship, more aligned with something you may see from a modern player, was something that you probably never saw from Jackie Robinson.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bat flip scene was not in the actual movie and I actually really enjoyed the film. It’s probably most beneficial for me to lay out what I thought the film handled well, and what I thought could have been better.
Visually, the movie was pretty fantastic. The uniforms, the reproductions of the old stadiums – all were done really well. I thought the acting was pretty superb for the most part and I thought that the actor depicting Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman was adept at making you feel a seething hatred for the character. It showed some of the more bold and obnoxious racist attacks, and I’m glad that the movie dealt with some of the difficult material, rather than just trying to gloss over it. The scene with Chapman and the Phillies though was probably even worse than depicted. In the film, it’s mostly Chapman sitting outside the dugout assailing Robinson with a barrage of racist insults as he stands at the plate. In actuality, Chapman did exactly that – but he also encouraged the rest of the Phillies bench to get involved. Even when the league forced Chapman to make nice with Robinson (hence the photograph scene with the two men) there would still be some less overt comments from the Phillies dugout when they played Robinson. Players would actually point at him and make machine gun noises, in reference to the death threats they knew Robinson was receiving.
I felt that the film missed some of the key elements to Robinson’s experience and ignored several things that it should have covered. I know you can’t get to everything in a two-hour window, but some of these things seem like big misses. First of all, Robinson was not alone during his first spring training and season in Montreal. The film basically made it look like it was Robinson and Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith on their own for the most part (and more on Smith shortly). Branch Rickey decided that it was a bad idea to send Robinson into the lion’s den alone, so he signed a second black player – right-handed pitcher John Wright. Robinson, Wright, Smith and Courier photographer Billy Rowe spent a great deal of time together that first spring in Daytona Beach. There’s a scene in the movie during spring of 1946 where Smith learns that a lynch mob is coming for Robinson when they’re visiting the Florida town of Sanford. Rickey tells Smith to wake Robinson, but not tell him why they had to leave so quickly (so Robinson is not tempted to stay and fight). The two men sprint from the town, as Robinson fears that he has been cut from the team. He’s actually relieved and pleased to learn that their quick departure was because of a potential lynch mob. That incident actually happened, although Wright, Rowe, and Rachel Robinson were all there as well.
Wright faded after a couple of months in Montreal, and Branch Rickey stuck Negro League pitcher Roy Partlow in his place in order to serve as Robinson’s companion. Partlow also fizzled in the International League and was gone before the end of the season, but by the time he left, Robinson was mostly settled in. Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, Robinson’s future teammates on the Dodgers, played in the white minors during 1946 as well (although on a different team in Nashua, New Hampshire). However, this is never mentioned in the film either. I honestly think they may have left Wright and Partlow out to sort of emphasize Robinson as a rugged individualist, trying to survive all of the hostility in integrated baseball. It just seems odd that none of these men are even mentioned, except later to say that Campanella and Newcombe eventually joined Robinson in Brooklyn (Rickey also mentions their names when he’s considering potential Negro League players early in the film).
The other thing that is completely absent from the film is the fact that integration was part of a much larger movement. This ties back into my disappointment with how Wendell Smith was depicted in the film. In 42, Smith is primarily a grudging companion to Robinson (at least as far as Robinson’s concerned) and someone that’s basically a sports reporter. Smith was no average sports reporter though. His old columns and stories are incredible to read – he really attempts to start a movement through the media. The Pittsburgh Courier is also known for its very famous “Double V” campaign starting in 1942, referencing victory at home (over segregation), and victory in the war. Baseball was just one aspect of this greater movement. And I’m not saying this to diminish Branch Rickey’s role, or Robinson’s role – just to say that there was more to the story. I’ve never gotten the impression that Robinson seemed annoyed by Smith’s presence. I felt like the film really deflated a powerful and fascinating individual in Wendell Smith.
I don’t want to take anything away from Chadwick Boseman’s fine performance, because I thought he was excellent in the role. However, I think that perhaps the script lacked a bit of nuance as far as Robinson’s personality. He was an extremely charming and engaging man (which I thought you saw in scenes with his wife Rachel) and in many ways he won white players over by his play and by his personality. He did lose his temper a couple of times (in the movie, he takes his frustrations out on a bat in the dugout tunnel during a game). However, during Robinson’s season in Montreal he was actually diagnosed with a near nervous breakdown near the end of the season. He had tons of stomach issues, and he thought he was possibly ill with a serious ailment. It turns out that a doctor told him it was all brought on by stress and nerves. Another event not mentioned in the movie (and it seems almost scripted for Hollywood) was when Robinson led Montreal to victory in the Little World Series. Fans actually flooded the field and lifted Robinson onto their shoulders in celebration.
When the film ended, it put a number of typed facts on the screen, explaining what happened to a number of the people in the movie. They talk about how Newcombe and Campanella soon joined Robinson and how modern players wear the number 42 in order to honor Robinson. What they don’t mention is the decline of the Negro Leagues after integration (or the fact that that they did stick around for a number of years after 1947. I wrote this piece about it last year). They also never mention that it took until 1959 for every team to integrate – Boston was the final team when they signed Pumpsie Green. I think by mentioning that, you show that the struggle didn’t end with Jackie Robinson. The majors also didn’t have the first black manager until Frank Robinson took over the Indians as player/manager in 1975.
My last complaint is probably the one I feel is most unfair – there was absolutely no mention of Larry Doby. Sure, his name was written on a chalkboard of Negro League players that Rickey was considering in 1945, but you’d have to be observant to catch it. Plus, while Rickey did consider Doby at one point in time, it was likely he did not consider him that early. Doby (who was only 22 when he joined the Indians) really didn’t have his breakout season until he helped the 1946 Newark Eagles win the Negro League World Series. I know that the movie wasn’t about him, and you can’t jam everything in there. However, to not even mention his struggles seems disappointing (he joined the Indians just 11 weeks after Robinson started with the Dodgers, and Doby had no integrated spring training or minor league experiences). I guess this is just in line with the fact that Wright and Partlow were never mentioned either. Doby had a road that was as difficult as Robinson, even though he received support on the Indians from Lou Boudreau, Joe Gordon, and obviously, Bill Veeck. I know people say that the second person to do something never gets remembered, but Doby was still the first player in the American League. And because the American League was new in 1901, it was never integrated – Doby was literally the first African American to play in the AL. I could go on and on (and on) about Doby, but perhaps I’ll save that for July 5 – the anniversary of his first game. I will add that I was glad the film included that bit about Wendell Smith having to hold his typewriter on his lap since the press box was segregated. Bill Veeck also integrated the press box at Cleveland Municipal Stadium and hired of lot of African Americans in staff positions (like media relations and other jobs in the front office).
Even though I obviously have some issues with the film, I still think that it is very good and worth seeing. More than anything, I’m just glad that this topic is getting attention from a new generation of fans that may not know as much about segregated baseball.