"42" Review: A Black Story, Told By a White Man. Full of Sound and Fury. Signifying Little
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42 Review: A Black Story, Told By a White Man. Full of Sound and Fury. Signifying Little

By Dustin Rowles | Film Reviews | April 12, 2013 | Comments ()


I have a huge affection for films about black athletes breaking the color barrier or dealing with the racism of their era. Movies like Remember the Titans and The Express push all the right buttons for me. I am very aware of how manipulative they are, but I allow myself to be swept up by them anyway. They are Disneyfied versions of important historical events made palatable for white audiences, but I'm willing to cut them some slack because they do bring our attention to these courageous, inspirational figures from our checkered past. New generations need to know about these people so that their struggles are not forgotten, so that our past can continue to push us to be even better, so that a song like Brad Paisley's "Accidental Racist" doesn't become a "Get Over It" rallying cry. Jackie Robinson had to endure a lifetime of abuse from redneck pieces of sh*t in order to help clear a path for future generations of African Americans, and a Confederate flag on a Skynrd shirt in a Starbucks only offers a reminder of the suffering that Robinson and so many millions of others had to experience.

There's a lot of ugly business in 42, but you nevertheless have the feeling that it's not telling the whole story. You can't really tell that whole story in two hours, and in order to make it marketable, everyone has to be depicted in heavy contrasts of black and white. In 42, the characters are either racist assholes, or they support Jackie Robinson, or they start out as racist assholes who are converted into kind, hand-shaking huggable supporters by the determination and play of Robinson. This was still years before separate and equal was abolished, and a black guy in a white sport could not have won over generations of Americans with a few contrived, cinematic gestures. There's more to this story than any film can capture.

It's taken a long time for this particular story to come to the big screen, and I can understand why filmmakers might have been hesitant to tell it. This is not just another movie about a black player breaking the color barrier. It's about the first black player to break the color barrier in baseball, a sport associated with America, and by virtue of that, even more integrated into the fabric of our nation's racist past.

The movie itself is good, in the way that Remember the Titans and The Express were good, but Jackie Robinson's career deserves even more than that. He deserves an epic motion picture, one that captures the nuance and nastiness of the times, that gives us a real, honest sense of what it was like to be Jackie Robinson, instead of providing racist caricatures (even effective ones, like Alan Tudyk's Phillies' manager, Ben Chapman, who sounds like a goddamn Tarantino character). It is a monumental story of a monumental player at a monumental turning point in the history of America's most monumental sport, and 42 is too slight to measure up to the gravity and weight Jackie Robinson should be afforded.

Indeed, 42 deserves better than a Brooklyn Dodger's owner, Branch Rickey, played by a gravelly Ebeneezer do-gooder, who is actually good in a Disney inspirational movie kind of way. But more importantly, it deserves better than writer and director Brian Helgeland (Robin Hood, Mystic River, L.A. Confidential), who makes a perfectly adequate formulaic sports film. Unfortunately, no matter how honest he sets out ot make (and there are several accounts and composites that sync well with Ken Burns' epic Baseball documentary), it still feels dishonest coming from a middle-aged white guy from Rhode Island. It's a black story told by a white guy and that's what it feels like.

That's not to say that 42 is a bad movie. It's not. It does what it sets out to do. I felt inspired by Robinson. My heart swelled. My emotions soared. I felt angry at the racist caricatures, and 42 does an estimable job of validating our respect and admiration for Jackie Robinson (played ably here by Chadwick Boseman). Maybe it's an impossible task to ask someone to accurately capture the enormous magnitude of Jackie Robinson's place in history, and maybe a movie like 42 is the best we can hope for in a Hollywood system dictated by money. But for all its earnestness, and for all the good intentions behind 42, I feel like we deserve better -- that Jackie Robinson deserves better -- than The Help version of his life.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • HobokenGuy

    I saw it last night and also felt like it was empty somehow. It all seemed too...measured to elicit real emotion. It made the whole process seem like it followed a clean path which I'm sure it definitely did not. The details were right, and the scenery was amazing, but it was all too clean.

    Plus although I thought Harrison Ford did as good a job as he could and was sometimes convincing as Rickey, but often gave that Han Solo/Indiana Jones look that took me out of the picture.

  • par1964

    Just saw 42 in the theatres ...... it would have been right at home on the Disney show, which aired every Sunday evening in 1972.

    This was a terrible film. Ya gotta know that Jackie Robinson was subjected to some fierce racism ..... in this movie it was used as comic relief. The question, "Branch Rickey why did you decide to do this??" was never answered. All they got right in this movie was that Jackie Robinson was a ball player in the 40s .... That. Is. All.

    The only way this could have been worse would be if they'd put Martin Lawrence in the lead role. There was no grit .... no delving into the racism in American society. It was just presented as ho-hum ..... Jackie Robinson deserves much more than this.

  • I saw 42 a couple of nights ago at an advance screening. I thought it was decent, and maybe a good way to introduce Jackie Robinson and his importance to future generations. Not be all they need to know about him, but an introduction, a beginning to the conversation, so to speak.

    I was shocked by how many people I overheard make the comment, "This is the best sports movie I've ever seen!" Whaaaa?!?!? It's not only not the best baseball movie I've ever seen, it's not even in my top five.

    I should probably note that in a packed theater of 300 (it was free), there were fewer than 10 African-Americans present. The audience was almost entirely 50/50 people my parents age (55+) or hipsters. I was certainly out of place.

  • PDamian

    This was my experience as well: a theatre packed with white folks. Not a single African-American. And almost all of the attendees were 55+ (and mostly men). I'm pretty sure I was one of the youngest there -- and I'm 48. They seemed to enjoy the film; there were laughs in the right places and gasps in other places. I liked it too, but in the same way I liked The King's Speech: interesting, funny in parts, touching in other parts, and ultimately as weighty as a soap bubble.

  • exactly! so glad i wasn't the only one who felt that way.

  • Just seeing the previews, the look and tone seem to be off. It feels too Hollywood-ish. I feel like Robinson's story should be more of a documentary style. That's not to say it can't work in an entertaining kind of way. But I'm skeptical many can do his story and the themes justice.

  • The previews I saw had a hip hop soundtrack that was completely absent from the movie, which may have contributed to that off feeling.

  • e jerry powell

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

    I roll my eyes at white people and their movies.

  • manting

    while I do agree with your sentiment I must ask you to explain Tyler Perry. He makes Brett Ratner look like Orson fucking Wells.

  • e jerry powell

    I have no explanation. I disowned that piece of work with the first movie.

    In truth, I swore years ago to bring about Tyler Perry's destruction, but goddammit if the people at Lionsgate didn't give him a shitload of money and office space for making films on low budgets that earn all their money back.

    I guess if you want something more rational, he's not unlike history's genre filmmakers. When the studios wanted "women's pictures," they went to Cukor or Sirk. When Lionsgate wants happy friendly "Black pictures," they go to Tyler Perry. Lionsgate figures that black people, as a "niche market," want films that represent their experiences (but who doesn't, right?), and Tyler Perry, in his thickheaded way, might fill that gap.

    Alas, to all appearances, Lionsgate is correct. Personally, I think it's underselling the intelligence of African-Americans, but I can only speak for myself, and I guess I'm just atypical.

  • Cazadora

    In 1995, TBS produced "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream" and I worked on doing much of the research used to develop the marketing materials. Part of that was doing focus groups where we talked to men, but decided to do separate groups for black men and white so that we could make sure that we got honest material. The white guys were great, but you could tell with the black men just how important Hank and Jackie were to them. It was beyond emotional and we all of us sat in the viewing room with tears in our eyes, while these men sat there and revealed things that I just don't think they ever really got an opportunity to talk about. I will never forget this experience.

  • e jerry powell

    Out of sincere curiosity, what was the age demo on the black men?

  • Cazadora

    Men 18-49, who were baseball fans. We did three Af Am groups in various cities or about 12 per city for 36 total. Keep in mind that this was qualitative research and not directly projectable on the U.S. pop.

  • e jerry powell

    No, I get that. I'm thinking that such a reaction in a focus group would skew towards the older men. What I like to call the "MLK effect."

  • Cazadora

    Well, it was almost 20 years ago (good lord), so I can't say for sure if this might have been mostly the older men in the groups. I wish I still had those tapes, though.

  • John

    This review would have been better if it hadn't been written by a young white guy.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Only a young white New Englander has the perspective to adequately criticize another white New Englander.

  • Tracer Bullet

    Dustin isn't from New England. He's not all that young either.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    He's New England nowwwwww.

  • Mrcreosote

    Okay, what's wrong with middle aged white guys from Rhode Island? You want a documentary on clam cakes or quahogs or clear chowder or NY system weiners or pizza strips or low level political corruption or turn of the century aristocrats or religious outliers or third tier indian tribes, WHERE ARE YOU GONNA GO??

  • Kaitlyn David

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  • VonnegutSlut

    I don't know if that's just bad makeup or if it's just his normal face nowadays, but Harrison Ford has a serious case of Muppet-itis in that header pic.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Dustin, you are killing me with the typos in this review. Seriously. The proofreading veins in my proofreading brain are throbbing fit to explode.

    Aside from that - I want to argue the point that it's impossible for a good movie to be made about this. And I want to argue that it's not possible for a white guy to make a good movie about a black historical figure. I'm not disputing that that might not be the case for this movie - but please, someone, tell me it's possible. (maybe I want it to be so because the last play I wrote was about a black slave in Boston, and I tried so damn hard not to make it too whitey-white).

    Btw, what's the deal with the black bellhop in that photo? Is he there just so Robinson's not alone?

  • The movie never explains why the bellhop is there, or introduces him, or anything. He's just there to lean into the picture. It struck me as odd, too. I'm guessing it's a historical detail that got lost on the cutting room floor. Also, I was so completely distracted by Harrison Ford's eyebrows that I had to google Branch Rickey when I got home to see if he actually looked like that (he did).

  • Cazadora

    Years ago, TBS did a documentary series on the history of Native Americans and Ted insisted that it be produced and directed by Native American's. So it was, and it was good, but horrific and, as a white person, incredibly hard to watch (I only did because I had to as part of my job, I would have never chosen to watch it on my own). The ratings for it were so poor, that for years it remained the lowest rated show ever on the network.

    But to get back a little bit towards your original question...women write using the male voice, and men for women, adults write a child's voice -- yet somehow we draw the line at race and say that somehow you can't write well about this subject. This is total BS and I think it says more about our unease with race than it does about an writer/director/producer/studio/tv network's ability to write authentically in other voices.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    remember the outcry about the man who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha, because how dare a white man write as a Japanese woman? And I thought that book was beautifully done.

  • e jerry powell

    I have willfully avoided Geisha despite a deep and abiding adoration of Zhang Ziyi, so I don't really have much background on how it would differ from 42 in how white people might be portrayed relative to Asians, but I think that to a degree there is (or perhaps should or shouldn't be) a greater degree of latitude in writing fiction (or even fact-inspired fiction).

    That said, I certainly understand the impact of European colonial attitudes as they play out in writing (particularly after surviving a couple of productions of The King and I).

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Geisha the movie is decent; I definitely found the book richer. And actually, I think some of the complaints on that were similar to complaints about The Help - that someone had had a particular subset about their stories, and fictionalized around their stories. To me that sounds like *research* rather than theft (or like, you know, Law & Order) but what do I know?

  • Cazadora

    Yes I do remember that and was actually thinking about it when I wrote the above. I just had a thought, though...there's so much about white people writing for black voices, but what about black authors who write for white? Are those inauthentic? I've never felt that way, though I've read more than my share of Af Am authors. Or in film, does Spike Lee or John Singleton have to feel apologetic about the portrayal of white people in their films?

  • e jerry powell

    Sometimes I feel they should, but then I remember things like
    1) the only white person in School Daze is in a painting, but like The Women is actually all about men, School Daze is implicitly all about white people; nothing in either film would be happening in the real absence of, ironically. Without the inherent influence of men, the women that Luce wrote would not only have no conflict, they'd have nothing to do. Without white people, none of the black people would have any beef with each other.
    2) Do the Right Thing. Everyone in that film except for Rosie Perez is completely despicable at some point, and all resulting from being fairly broadly drawn caricatures (intentionally, to some degree).

    Sometimes I think the more annoying portrayals come from stand-up comedy, but that's a whole different story.

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