This week it was announced that, in honour of Chadwick Boseman’s death, his film 42 would be released in cinemas again. As cynical as I might be about the move, it is a wonderful way to celebrate his work as an actor. It was also a great excuse for me to watch it for this review. I have to be honest, I’m no fan of sports movies. Well, aside from The Mighty Ducks, Little Giants and Space Jam. It’s mostly because I don’t really care about sports. I can think of thousands of things that I’d rather be doing than sitting down and watching people kick/throw/hit a ball around a pitch. It’s not so surprising that one of those things isn’t sitting down and watching a formulaic film about people kicking/throwing/hitting a ball around a pitch. And I don’t know anything about baseball. It’s just complicated rounders. However, it felt like the right thing to do.
Before 1947, there was an unspoken agreement within Major League Baseball that the sport would remain segregated. Although there was no official policy stopping them, Black men were prevented from reaching the higher levels of the sport. Black baseball players were forced to form their own leagues in order to play. The turning point came in 1945 when Branch Rickey, Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, anticipated the eventual integration of Black players in MLB. Rickey signed Jackie Robinson with the intention of having him play for the Dodgers. It was a controversial move but Robinson proved himself. His skills on the field saw him earn the title of Rookie of the Year. This was while being faced with racial slurs and death threats.
Jackie Robinson was not just a great baseball player but he was a turning point in race relations. Robinson was the first Black player to cross the colour line of the sport. He made the first step towards reshaping the landscape of baseball. He’s a sporting hero and a man who deserves to be celebrated. It’s no wonder they wanted to make a film about him. And what better person could they get to play him than Chadwick Boseman? This was back when Boseman was a relative newcomer and he brings a great energy to the role. He is stoic but there is an obvious drive and determination there. You get the sense that Boseman is wary of and excited by the importance of this figure. You instantly warm to Jackie despite his cocky attitude on the field. Mostly because he’s got he skills to back it up.
After a quick glimpse at Wikipedia, I’m assured that there are several small historical inaccuracies within this film but that’s to be expected. What is clear, is that this film has been made very carefully to really celebrate the man in the middle of it all. It’s a serious and straight film that never strays too far to the lighter side but it still brings a charm and a joy to it. It also has that same reverence for the game that all baseball movies do. 42 buys into the mythology as much as the next one but it’s also to be expected. Americans and baseball; it’s a deep love.
Although, this isn’t exactly a game about baseball itself. The games aren’t really meant to show off the players doing their thing but to show the reaction that Jackie faces. At every game, we see the crowds turn on him and the opposing team doing everything they can to take him out. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to show how dark side to the sport’s past. This film makes fitting viewing for modern times thanks to its overt social commentary. In one scene, a young boy waits to see his hero play but, when the home crowd start jeering at Robinson, he is persuaded to join in the racist chanting. Just a simple reminder that racist attitudes aren’t born but passed down from generation to generation.
What I enjoyed most abut this film is that, despite all of the great social commentary, it isn’t trying to romanticise history. It is very clear that the decision to bring Robinson onto the team wasn’t one of great social or political defiance. It was one that was mostly wanted to capitalise on the changing tides. Harrison Ford is fantastic as Rickey. He brings a gentle charm to the role but also a ruthlessness. He is, after a businessman and he knows that Jackie can play. It it’s own way 42 is highlighting the idea that there is no difference between him and the other players. Ultimately, they all just want to win.
Still, the message is clear. Jackie Robinson was an American hero for many reasons. The film lifts him up and ensures that there can be no doubt of how important he was. Whatever the reason. Did he perhaps deserve a better film? Some might think so but I enjoyed it. I certainly fell for all of the usual manipulative tricks and cried my eyes out at the end. So, I guess I can say that it did its job right.