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.