42 is a hard movie to review. I feel bad saying anything negative because the subject matter, the real life struggle of the first black Major League Baseball player, it’s so important. Seeing in film where we’ve come from as a nation, where we’re at right now, how we got here, how much further we have to go, it’s everything you think it would be: inspiring, uplifting, motivational. But at the same time it’s big Hollywood making a huge big Hollywood biopic (I don’t even know how you pronounce biopic. Is it bio-pic? Bi-opic?) And Hollywood gives us everything you’d think it would give us.
You get a big star, not in the guy who played Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman,) but in Harrison Ford, playing the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a guy named Branch Rickey. It took me a good fifteen minutes to even recognize that it was Harrison Ford, and when I finally did, all I could think was, Jesus, Star Wars VII is going be terrible. In preparation for this role, I imagine Ford went to the public library and checked out a book titled, How to Act as a No-Nonsense 1940s Cigar-Chomping Baseball Team Owner for Dummies. You could do this yourself. Say something in your normal voice right now. Now make it two octaves lower. Now add a little rasp. Bingo.
You get the sweeping score. The music was like the themes from Superman, Jurassic Park, and ET all rolled into one epic soundtrack, then made just slightly more generic, and finally added way too liberally throughout the course of the film. Yeah, I get it, a huge orchestra overlay felt right as Robinson walked onto Ebbets Field for the first time, but that grand music lost a little of its luster used on top of Robinson taking his first integrated shower in the locker room.
You get a real life story that’s kind of flattened out somewhat. Everything’s just a little too much and not enough all at the same time. The dialogue felt forced; I can’t imagine anyone talking the way that these characters speak. And I’m not referring to the vitriol, the large doses of racist hate, always accentuated with heavy usage of those hard n-words. It’s the conversations that the main characters have amongst themselves. Every sentence sounded like it was written as a potential one-liner for a commercial. Cheesy stuff like, “The world’s not so simple anymore. Maybe it never was,” “The world is waiting for us,” or, “It doesn’t matter what I believe, only what I do.”
And then there’s the tricky subject of race, of our country’s racial history, of its continuing impact on society. Even in this seemingly innocent tale of clearly good vs. blatantly evil, the way that this story is told is still somebody’s point of view of American history. The movie opens up with Mr. Rickey shocking a bunch of midlevel managers, telling them that he’s going to bring a black baseball player to the big leagues.
I felt similar pangs of discomfort when I saw Lincoln a few months ago. It just feels like Hollywood, in trying to reach out to audiences both black and white, in trying to portray certain real struggles in our history, it can’t help but come off as patronizing. In a way, this movie isn’t just about what Jackie Robinson did for baseball, for America, but it’s about what a bunch of white guys allowed Jackie Robinson to do for baseball, for America.
There’s a scene after Jackie and Rachel Robinson have their baby where the title character gives this monologue standing in front of the newborn. He talks about how his dad left him when he was six months old, how this time it’s going to be different, how this baby is going to know who his dad is. I couldn’t help but imagine Hollywood as this big predominantly white institution almost giving a public service announcement to the black community about parenting. Which … is it OK? I have no idea. I don’t claim any authority on race relations. President Obama has made similar remarks; so why do his sound more genuine?
Ultimately this movie is fine for what it is, which is something pretty much readymade to be shown in high schools across the country whenever teachers feel like phoning it in for the day. It’s a movie aimed at general audiences on the widest level imaginable. It’s an important subject, almost impossible to believe that this stuff happened not even a hundred years ago. Despite all of its big-budget flaws, it made me think, about America, about race, about how far we’ve come since segregation, about how, as a white person, how many black people do I really know?
Are we really an integrated society? I kept thinking about Jim Crow, about Civil Rights, about how during World War II, black and white men served together, died together. All of that must have forged connections, real human connections that served as some sort of a foundation for the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. But what do we have now? Why does it feel like so much is still separate? Maybe this generation is lacking in a huge event bigger than race, something like a World War or a national protest movement to really break down racial barriers.
Or maybe we’ll never really get there, maybe it’s always going to be this continuing conversation, people making movies, always reintroducing our history to the present day. In this regard, any movie that makes these questions relevant, important, I think it’s a success, not to mention a tribute to an incredible man and his inspiring story.