“42,” the new film biography of baseball great Jackie Robinson, starts out like a standard-issue good-for-you history lesson. The over-explanatory voiceover narrator comes off as condescending and unnecessary and the evocative, over-scrubbed imagery feels imitation Spielberg. The insistent “This Is Important!” musical score certainly doesn’t help.
But there’s more going on in “42” than just the glossing of a legend. There are wonderful sequences on the field that capture the joy of the game (and the pleasures of a successful, dirty slide). There’s a deeply uncomfortable scene that dares not to back away from the blatant racist taunts and threats that were a reality of Robinson’s entry into the game. There are also moments of honest humor that don’t compromise the story or the seriousness of the situations. And there’s a strong effort not to sweeten reality too much, leaving the core strength of Robinson’s character to shine clearly.
What I like most about the film is that, like baseball, it doesn’t confine Robinson’s influence to one big play. Changing attitudes toward race in this country wasn’t—and isn’t—a matter of a single redefining moment but, rather, a series of smaller victories and setbacks. The quest for equality is a game of inches. “42” gets that.
There’s no doubt that this is a Hollywood film. The version Spike Lee might have made when he optioned the story in the 1990s certainly would have had a different feel. And I’ll leave it to others to sort out where the film strays from the true story.
But I was happy to sit in the theater with my kid (as I suspect many parents will do) and, afterward, talk about fairness, struggle, race, self-respect, and the way the world has—and hasn’t—changed.
And then start looking for the next opportunity to catch a game at Victory Field.
P.S. For a VERY different look at race relations, watch for my review of the play Clybourne Park at the Phoenix Theatre.