Many ProFans are likely more apt to recognize the number 42 as “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. On top of being a Whovian, Sherlockian, and many other -ians, I happen to also be a baseball geek (go Cubs!). To this end, I have an irrational affinity for almost every baseball movie (some more irrational than others), and the number 42 is recognized for something quite a bit different to ProFans of baseball like myself. That’s where this film comes in. 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, hit store shelves, yesterday; Warner Bros. has smartly coordinated the release schedule of this movie: it rounded the box office right after opening day of baseball season, and now it’s sliding into your home at the All-Star break. Clever, WB… clever.
Baseball is a sport of two things; the first of which is numbers. Not just the numbers on the back of every player’s jersey, but the numbers on the scorecards: stats, attendance, etc. You name it, and you can bet baseball keeps a record of it. The second thing: camaraderie; on and off the field. Of course, the players on the field suit up together day in and day out, and they have to become a family; but in the stands is where the real magic has always happened. Communities were born and fostered in the stands of professional baseball games. There’s a reason baseball became “America’s pastime”; it was like church, but it actually meant something. Some other things the sport fostered, however–even more than society–were racism, discrimination, and segregation. While Jim Crow laws kept the fans “separate but equal”, an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” kept players “separate and not even equal”. Black players were effectively banned from baseball until 1947, with just a few managing to get in by having to pretend they weren’t African-American.
Why do I mention any of this in a movie review? Of course you already know about baseball, the history of race relations in the United States, and the general story of Jackie Robinson. The reason I bring any of this into the conversation is because, in my eyes, 42 perfectly communicates their import. The film takes you not just onto the field but also into the world of the 1940s. You’re shown how baseball was really a hub of social science in the early twentieth century. There really were no other large stages where thousands of people of different races, creeds, and generations would regularly come together and just exist for a few hours. So when Jackie Robinson (and the less-heralded Larry Doby) joined the league in 1947, it was a significant experiment in humanity; in decency. So many people failed the test of history, but Jackie Robinson (and Hank Greenberg, before him) helped society pass.
Because baseball (and sports, in general) is such a familial experience, too, bigoted parents brought their children to a baseball game and unknowingly improved them as people. These kids saw heroes they loved playing a game they loved with someone they were taught to hate; a child can’t bear witness to that and not be changed for the better. And this, all of this, is present on the screen when you watch 42. You see the change, and you’re shown the symbolism. For example, white children pretending to be Jackie Robinson on the playground (there was many a time, growing up, when I–a white kid–pretended to be Ken Griffey Jr or Michael Jordan–basketball Jordan, not baseball Jordan), and I was taken right back to that while watching this movie.
Looking at it strictly as a film, is it a bit corny or thick with inspirational jelly? Maybe, but really who gives a fuck? You don’t watch a movie about Jackie freakin’ Robinson, unless you want to be inspired. If you do, that’s your fault; the movie doesn’t fail because you don’t know how to watch a movie. The movie succeeds exceptionally well. As I said, it captures everything about Jackie Robinson’s story and the story of segregation in baseball that I wanted it to capture. Brian Helgeland’s direction excels in feeling like you’re watching a baseball game (and that’s a good thing, to me). It’s a sports drama, so it’s going to be slow in spots because dramatic films are slow in spots, but the moments Helgeland chose to alter the pace are fantastic. For example, the film ups the tempo when Robinson is running (and stealing) bases; that’s perfect because you feel his speed and the same sensation you felt playing baseball as a kid. That speed change has the added benefit of representing the change of pace Robinson was ushering into the sport. To me, it felt like watching Superman play baseball; that’s not just because Robinson was a great player or exceptionally fast, but because it just felt like apple pie, peanuts, and Cracker Jack; it feels like watching pure Americana round the bases. As far as acting, Chadwick Boseman (Robinson) is a star in the making; he has the feel of a leading man (and, coincidentally, I still hope he lands the role of John Stewart in DC‘s expanding cinematic universe). Harrison Ford turns in the best pure acting performance of his career. He’s certainly had larger and more enduring characters, but as far as dramatic acting, he’s never been better. The cast also includes Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Lucas Black, John C. McGinley, Alan Tudyk, and TR Knight; they’re all very good. Meloni turns in one of the best scenes of the movie (in terms of dramatic acting), and Lucas Black–who plays Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese–has the flat-out best scene of the entire movie (in terms of emotional response). 42 is just a damn fine film.
At its core, though, this movie isn’t about the people who star in it, its director, or even Jackie Robinson. It’s called 42 for a reason. Jackie Robinson was a great, Hall of Fame-caliber player and was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame (anyone who would say otherwise is plainly fucking stupid); however, as much as he deserves every bit of respect and admiration history gives him, Major League Baseball did not retire the number 42 from ever being worn by another player just because Jackie Robinson was a great player or a great man. That number was retired, so that it could become a symbol. Today, the number 42 is displayed in every stadium in the league; that’s 17 American states, 1 Canadian province, and the District of Columbia. It serves as a reminder of the discrimination and segregation we have all been through; as baseball fans, baseball players, and as a nation. The release of this film would have, unfortunately, been timely at any point in the past fifty years, but it’s particularly timely now, given that we are seeing questions of whether or not gay athletes can safely “come out” publicly and continue their career, and we’re seeing continued discrimination against female basketball players like Brittney Griner, with people contending that “Women just simply should not play basketball with men” (among many other social issues that are sadly showing no sign of going away soon). This film is not going to fix those problems, but I would hope, if nothing else, younger generations watch this movie and are able to see ignorance for what it is.