REVIEW: Thoughts on '42,' the Jackie Robinson biopic

April 12, 2013
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“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.

Your thoughts?

P.S. For a VERY different look at race relations, watch for my review of the play Clybourne Park at the Phoenix Theatre.

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  • 42
    Knowing a lot about Branch Rickey I thought Harrison Ford did an amazing job in replicating the Mahatma. Also kudos are due Andre Holland for his role as journalist Wendell Smith whose understated support was so important to Jackie's ability to cope with the turmoil around him. The film itself takes few liberties with the true story giving us a painfully accurate account of a seminal moment in American civics. It is obvious that the actors, including John C. McGinley, who has Red Barber down cold,did their homework to faithfully re-create their characters.
  • Legend and Hero
    Ok, I am baseball fan. I am also African-American and I am also over 60. So I know the story and under appreciated signaficance of Mr. Robinson's contribution to civil rights. Having said all that, I saw the movie as a guest of IBJ on Wednesday. As a quick history lesson I think the movie did its job. Unfortunately, as I have so often said about these kinds of movies where supposedly the better side of humanity wins, the people that should see it don't. As a movie that entertained while also educating I think it failed on the entertaining side. There were no climatic moments. I really liked the actress that played Mrs. Robinson. I can tell she has better things to come and I will be watching to see what she does in the future. Harrison Ford also did a magnificent job (I don't know a lot about Branch Rickey personality so can't speak to how closely he captured the man). Also, I wonder if Mr. Rickey's motivation was as pure as he finally confessed to Mr. Robinson. As a baseball player and fan I was hoping for more baseball showcasing the amazing baseball player. On that I was disappointed. It might sound like I didn't enjoy the movie. That's not true I did. I just think it could have been better.

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