Writer/director Brian Helgeland’s 42 purports to be a biopic on the life and career of Jackie Robinson, the major league baseball Hall of Fame-r who shattered the color barrier in sports by becoming the first African American to play baseball on the professional level. The film is a well-intentioned picture that unfortunately stands as another example of what happens when a white guy attempts to tell African American history: Instead of focusing on Jackie Robinson, the story mostly centers on Branch Rickey, the executive responsible for signing Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Following a brief prologue describing the state of race relations in America immediately following World War II, the film opens with Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) announcing his plans for the Brooklyn Dodgers. This opening scene sets the template for the picture: Rickey intends to hire a player from the Negro Leagues to play for his team and tear down the race barrier, he’s met with fierce resistance, but everyone eventually comes around to his way of thinking. Rickey is portrayed as the visionary here and Jackie Robinson isn’t much more than an instrument in his hands. Now, I’m sure the portrayal of Rickey and Robinson is historically accurate, and Rickey’s fortitude should be admired, but the inordinate amount of attention paid to Rickey in the context of a two hour biopic undermines Jackie Robinson’s own achievements.
Soon enough, however, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) crosses paths with Rickey. Rickey settles on Robinson, not because he’s the best player in the Negro leagues, but because he has the right mixture of talent, intelligence, and spirit necessary to survive the storm coming his way. And in early scenes, Boseman gives a fantastic performance as the force of nature that Jackie Robinson must have been. I’ve never seen Chadwick Boseman in a movie before, but the guy is a born star—in 42 he gives a performance that’s at once attention-grabbing and incredibly nuanced. The role requires him to run a gamut of emotions and he handles it deftly. Through his magnetic performance, you get a sense of how Robinson was able to change the attitude of a nation regarding African Americans in professional sports.
However, the movie’s attention eventually drifts from Robinson himself to the impact he has on Major League Baseball, and that’s something of a shame. After he’s drafted, the picture becomes increasingly about how the attitudes of the white players begin to adjust. Robinson doesn’t get to change or develop the way characters in most sports biopics do. He’s depicted as man of conviction at the beginning of the film and he remains that to the end. Yes, he begins to doubt himself when the racists come out in force to hammer him, but he doesn’t fundamentally change. Instead, he changes those around him.
This results in a biopic about Jackie Robinson that’s largely about white people. I’m not typically sensitive to racial issues in Hollywood, but Helgeland’s approach undermines his intent to tell a story about a civil rights trailblazer. It’s as if the studio refused to release a major motion picture about a black man without having a bunch white faces to anchor it which, when you think about it, is exactly the kind of mentality that people like Jackie Robinson sought to change.
Despite my criticism of the film’s point of view, 42 is still a well-made movie. Helgeland appears to have a knack for audience manipulation. The movie still manages to be inspirational, and that’s thanks in no small part to Helgeland’s solid direction and the brilliant performances on the part of the cast. Harrison Ford, in particular, gives one of the best performances of his career as the social-minded Rickey.
Telling a compelling sports tale is a difficult task, and Helgeland accomplishes it. The movie is a rousing crowd-pleaser with great production values, a decent script, strong performances, and strong direction. The film’s message is uplifting. In spite of its flaws, 42 is one of the better sports biopics in recent memory and yet I can’t shake the feeling that the film would have been significantly better if the filmmakers had had the courage to focus on Jackie Robinson the man. Maybe we’ll get that movie one day, but for now 42 will have to do.