42: The Jackie Robinson Legend reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

We are fortunate to be spared Spike Lee’s take on the Jackie Robinson story, which surely would have been spiteful: emphatic about race grievance and loaded with numerous Spikey tangents. But Brian Helgeland has fashioned 42, a superbly watchable tale, from Robinson’s groundbreaking desegregation of professional baseball through the machinations of farm system innovator Branch Rickey. It’s also a film about American spiritual history and destiny. The issues and emotions have a beautiful clarity.
Titled after Robinson’s player number (retired for all teams by the Major League Baseball association yet worn by players every April 15th–Jackie Robinson Day), 42 commemorates Robinson breaking the game’s color bar in 1947 as the first Negro playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Helgeland depicts this world-changing risk as a cultural story–not simply one man’s life story. Instead of biographical depth, 42’s character sketches sustain the same benevolence as the MLB’s memorial; its lively and vivid narrative celebrate the arduous steps of a social and moral revolution.
More than a baseball movie, 42 touches on the folktale qualities evinced in Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Dodgers’ General Manager Rickey (played by Harrison Ford). Showing baseball as the medium of social change, its practice and rituals are understood as basic to America’s sense of capability despite prevailing social divisions. That explains Helgeland’s elastic, All-American sense of class. Robinson strides into the roughneck world of sport possessing higher personal principles. He and wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) are already upwardly mobile; they need only the income and recognition that White Americans take for granted.
Helgeland’s respect for aspiration, which informs every scene, is central to the story’s concept. Rickey’s decision to integrate baseball has an uplifting, spiritual goal: “I don’t know who he is or where he is, but he’s coming,” Rickey says in 1945 and then after narrowing a list of prohibited Negro players, half-jokes, “Robinson is a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God is a Methodist. You can’t go wrong, get him here.”
But Rickey’s also pragmatic: “Dollars aren’t black or white, they’re green.” His justifications are true to a folksy era far different from today’s avaricious secularism yet it’s authentic to a way of thinking and feeling that was intrinsic to the psychodynamics of that 19th century sport. This fact supports Helgeland’s unique historic fable quality (perfectly expressed in Sister Wynona Carr’s vintage gospel end credits theme “The Ball Game:” “Life is a ball game but you got to play it fair.”)
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Now let’s get rid of any narrow-minded suspicion about Hollywood race stories always unequally pairing history’s Black sacrificial figures with dominant White cohorts. Helgeland’s even-handed vision of the Rickey-Robinson revolution enlarges it, taking in different aspects of America’s racial reality. Not merely the Jackie Robinson story, 42 relates tandem efforts and transformations by Rickey, Negro sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), assorted teammates (many brief, perfectly etched characterizations from Max Gail’s genial retired manager Burt Shotton, Chris Meloni’s virile Leo Durocher to Lucas Black’s affable Pee Wee Reese) and the crowds who fill the stands. This is the best casting since Cadillac Records; all profiles in courage.
The back office functioning behind America’s public face rarely gets shown but 42 appropriately reveals its significance, primarily through Harrison Ford’s undeniable appeal. Never credited for comic warmth, that quality distinguished Ford’s Indiana Jones from all movie action heroes. As Rickey, Ford’s elderly crusty growl is a homey voice of experience. Even Ford’s sly smile has spiritual authority which keeps Rickey’s personal confession (when Robinson asks him “Why?”) from being soggy or pious; it’s a perfectly balanced personification of wiliness and principle. Ford’s masculine affability confirms the noble essence of the civil rights movement, especially in Rickey’s warning to Robinson: “Like our Saviour, you’ve got to have the guts to turn the other cheek.”
Projecting magnanimous decency, Ford puts Rickey’s risk-taking and persistent urging in perfect balance to newcomer Boseman who portrays Robinson’s circumspect heroism. This isn’t a timid, nonthreatening Black man; he’s self-assured yet resentful of those who want to make him humble. Jeffrey Wright has played this Poitier complex but Denzel Washington never has. 42 is the first movie ever to show what it’s like for a Black man of intelligence to be disrespected by the White ruling class yet maintain his dignity and modesty. (42 has moments that compare to Poitier‘s recall of hearing a Hollywood technician call for “the nigger light” and having to endure the degradation.) Boseman’s wary intelligence conveys deep pride, a forgotten aspect of Black America’s still-gradual civil rights evolution.
Helgeland lets Ford/Rickey’s courage balance both the past era’s most advanced attitudes and the modern audience’s guileless ignorance of that history. The young Black actors–all ebullient, optimistic, determined–represent Blacks’ hopes while the familiar Whites personify fears. When 42 presents these details (as in Robinson and Reese‘s on-field pantomime), it surpasses Steven Spielberg’s morally arrogant Lincoln with its too-modern token Blacks and deified politician.
During a remarkable sequence of Robinson in the batter’s box being taunted by the Philadelphia Phillies’ racist manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) repeating only a few less N-bombs than Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Rickey transforms the attack strategically, sympathetically. This extraordinary assessment of how institutional racism was conquered by American fellow-feeling outstrips all Tony Kushner’s fancy wordplay in Lincoln. It is the essence of compassion, not smug literariness. 42 puts social progress in humane terms–on the ball field. in splendid deep-focus that keeps nature and human effort in lovely, balanced perspective.
Cinematographer Don Burgess makes 42 the most beautiful movie of 2013 so far. He photographs sunlight and water (when Robinson breaks before Rickey or finally showers among his White teammates) with true radiance. Nothing in Lincoln’s political contrivance is as resonant as Rickey confessing “Something was wrong at the heart of the game I loved and I had ignored it.” Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln never admitted such sorrowful complex. Lincoln pretended that political opposition was the essence of America’s moral progress when in fact it was only a power struggle; 42 is deeper and more honest in displaying how Americans changed through accepting skill, humanity, sympathy.
Helgeland has made a film totally without cynicism (and it’s a better approach to history than George Lucas’ lame Tuskegee Airman tribute Red Tails). Cynicism is what ruined Lincoln; cynicism was at the core of Kushner and Spielberg’s self-congratulatory warping of history–which was why liberals overrated it. Will Obama-era audiences appreciate 42’s richness with its deep understanding of how hard-won compassion has greater everyday effectiveness than the rule of law? Its splendid depiction of ball field effort? Or it’s unforgettable silhouetted fatherly embrace? These images test fairness within the glory of nature without the falsity of The Natural or Field of Dreams but like no movie since Robert Aldrich’s The Big Leaguer.
I’d like to describe more of 42’s wonderful scenes such as the shots of Robinson rounding the bases, focused on his “42” uniform imprint and its existential connotation like a Bresson icon, but viewers should discover such beauty for themselves. Rickey and Robinson may have been spiritual visionaries, but in this film they unite over the idea of being “built to last” by doing the right thing. Whatever 42’s fate in this cynical market, it is built to last.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair