’42′ Makes You Believe in Racists

42 – Written and Directed by Brian Helgeland; Starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. Rated PG-13 for a few curses and probably the 82763 uses of the N-word.

I can’t really say the new movie 42 is about Jackie Robinson. The movie never really gets into the heart and soul of the man. There is shot after shot of the character clenching his teeth and staring at nothing while being reviled by racists, but it’s just not enough in the end to add up to a satisfying movie. The movie poster promises that this movie will make you believe in heroes. Sadly, the bigots here make a stronger impression than the Jackie Robinson character does. I came away much more convinced in the reality of racists than in heroes. In that sense, 42 suffers what from what I shall always think of as The Horse Whisperer problem.

Everyone who saw The Horse Whisperer remembers the horrific opening sequence of the girl and horse getting hit by a truck. Horrible-bleck!-I shiver to recall. What I don’t remember about The Horse Whisperer was the victory at the end. Did the horse ever get ridden again? Did the girl ever recover? Was the movie even about them? Can’t say, but gosh, the bloody horse lying by the side of the road made me feel sick.

42 is a bit like that. You feel awful and disgusted by the cavalcade of sneering white faces calling Robinson “Boy” and “Nigger.” It goes on and on throughout the two hours, especially in one relentless sequence with the manager of the Pittsburgh team. In the mark of an UNinspiring move, at the end, you never feel as good as the bad felt bad. Something is missing.

The main problem in 42 was not an over-emphasis on bigots, but rather the absence of a hero. To be an inspiring movie requires that the hero needs to be ultimately much better than the villains are bad. I am sure Jackie Robinson was a true hero in history. In 42, the character and all African-Americans are handled with so much reverence that the only darkness they have to overcome is provided by white bigots. Except for the pesky racists always making him angry, Jackie in the film would have been a perfect man. He doesn’t grow or change except to more effectively suppress his righteous indignation. His relationship with his wife is perfect too mainly because she too is perfect. 42 is too reverential to be fun, but more disappointingly, too reverential to really allow for heroism which is all in rising above internal struggle.

The filmmakers know they have a problem here as they have one scene where Jackie – and we in the audience – are told loudly and strongly that he is a hero. It’s so sloppy it makes you groan. This isn’t something you can say to the audience. It needs to be something the audience says to itself. And the audience gets there by witnessing heroic behavior. Not victimization.

Except for some slight moments of awakening by a few of the other Brooklyn Dodgers, no one in the film changes, which is bad. It means the audience is watching the characters instead of journeying with the characters. Harrison Ford does an award-worthy job with his portrayal of the Dodger owner Branch Rickey, but he probably would have locked an Oscar if the film had let him grow somewhat. Instead, Rickey is committed, principled, and unwavering all the way through.

So, because it lacks any arcs of transformation, 42 is not a story. It’s just a bunch of episodes from the rookie season of Jackie Robinson. Some of them are awful and impressive, but that’s all there is.

The production design is good even with several cost-saving choices in evidence. Still, all the little details are where they should be in the way that most studio movies these days manage to perfectly recreate period details. But, again, a movie is not a picture postcard. It’s not enough to even perfectly execute an arena. It’s never enough because the audience wants a whopping good tale inside the arena.

Inexcusable and even painful about 42 are the “YOU WILL BE INSPIRED” cheesy moments throughout mostly utilizing long-suffering and then adoring African-Americans. Especially little boys rapt with hope and joy. And always with soaring accompaniment from the unoriginal musical score. Is it too much to ask for one little sleazy, creepy person of color, just to make it feel real? Oh well.

And so, maybe that’s the worst part of this project: it’s thoroughly unoriginal. No creativity in the telling or point of view in the piece. Nothing clever in the structure. No use of visual imagery or metaphor. No insight into either racists or race heroes. Dialogue on the nose. In fact, every moment on the nose. Characters either wicked or good. It all felt as if the filmmakers thought the real history didn’t need any help.

Well, for the record, a great movie based on true events is one that finds the story in the history. 42 isn’t a strike out because of the recreation of the period and the healthy horror-inducing it achieves of racism. But it’s far from a home run. Not nearly a triple. Or even a double. I’d say 42 is a pass ball. Get that? Pass.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sam-Sundberg/100000503691206 Sam Sundberg

    May 6th: I absolutely agree. I kept thinking that something was missing as I watched the movie with friends. There was a lack of depth and, as you say, we didn’t really get to know Jackie Robinson except as he was the focus of so much hatred. Very shallow portrayal – Jackie Robinson deserved better.

  • Howard Richards

    I’m looking for a movie that will allow me to feel smugly superior to my grandparents, who were not as enlightened as me and my generation. Got any suggestions?

    • jack

      Beautiful.
      I love that.
      Best comment here, heaha1

    • jack

      SBPDLdotcom.
      Explains all.

  • http://twitter.com/gailfinke Gail Finke

    George Weigel said it was great and said everyone in the theater he watched it in applauded at the end. Maybe it depends on what you’re looking for…

    • brnicolosi

      Gail – With ll due respect to George, whom I admire, he should stick to theology and eschew movie reviews. It certainly does depend on what one is looking for. In movies, I look for excellence in visual storytelling. Too many conservative Christians look for their own agenda in movies. Cheers!

  • Billiamo

    I would have been shocked if the movie hadn’t turned out this way, given Hollywood’s racist sacralization of blacks. Is it unreasonable to expect movies with complex black characters for a change? I can imagine there are scores of black actors eager to play them.

  • Tucker Teague

    I had already decided to wait for the video release to see it, so I haven’t seen it yet. Robinson was a great real-life hero, and important, but he (or, at least, his image) became and remains an icon – historical, immobile, resolute. I imagine the filmmakers fell for the trap of not wanting to mess with the icon, thus rendering the film more an exercise in safe ideology than scary human drama – “scary” in the sense of risking (with the audience and with themselves) that Robinson, and other heroes of the story, might be less than perfect, and thus real heroes.

  • Trevor Britton

    Thanks for the review. Slightly OT, but I would like to hear some of your top recommendations for historic narrative films that find the story, arcs, etc.

  • Patrick Ginty

    “Is it too much to ask for one little sleazy, creepy person of color, just to make it feel real? Oh well.” I agree, for instance, the movie could have shown Jackie Robinson’s wife pick-pocketing white folks’ wallets. Or the families that took him into their homes could have been shown gathering in the living room to look at porn. I also think that Schindler’s list could have been a little more critical of the Jews, you know, to make the holocaust seem a little more real and help me to identify with a level of discrimination that I have never experienced. (**sarcasm**) If you viewed this movie through the filter of “black people good, white people bad” maybe its your filter that needs examining.

    • brnicolosi

      Patrick – I wasn’t looking for a person of color to be a liberal democrat (porn and theft of other people’s wallets). But a little complexity is a good thing in story characters.

      Don’t be such a hater.

  • Barfly_Kokhba

    I had the same feeling about “Men of Honor.” I also watched “The Pursuit of Happyness” and felt it was better and more “inspiring,” but then I read the actual book on which the movie was based and found out that the real guy on whom the story is based was a sleaze and that a lot of the movie was not true.

  • UniblabBR

    I could want to see this movie only because of Harrison Ford (but now don’t want too…), since I’m not American and thus don’t know the main character from Adam, but what I do know is that Brian Helgeland is a mediocre screenwriter…

    But going off topic, Barbara, don’t you have anything to say about Malick’s latest, To The Wonder…? I haven’t seen it yet, but it hopefully opens here within 3 weeks.

    • brnicolosi

      I suppose I will have to see To The Wonder, if only for the long-held but still powerful love I carry with me for Badlands. Stay tuned.

      • UniblabBR

        Badlands is one of my very favorites, too; but why only because of it…? Weren’t you the big Malick fan…? What happened…? I loved The Tree of Life; didn’t you…?

        • barbaranicolosi

          What I am is a big Badlands fan. BIG. HUGE. So big that I kept going to Malick films hopefully, and speaking of him respectfully long after his films started screaming, “I’m basically a one-hit wonder.” Malick does some moments very nicely. But I don’t think his films are anywhere near as intellectual and brilliant as he – or a lot of Christian critics! – think they are.

        • brnicolosi

          Tree of Life was overlong by about 45 minutes, and, in the end, not nearly as profound as it thought it was. I liked some of it. Basically, my esteem for Malick is all traceable to my admiration for Badlands. Sadly, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, Malick’s “kingdom doesn’t seem to hold another one.”

          • UniblabBR

            That’s sad…I thought it was as…essentially cinematic as a movie can be.

            Glad you still like Badlands, though. I for one think it’s hard to divorce Malick’s movies from each other – and I have yet to see Days of Heaven.

            • brnicolosi

              I’ll give you that. Tree of Life was essentially cinematic, but there was just too much imagery. The virtue of imagery is that it is clearer than the truth it is meant to explicate. In Tree of Life, the imagery was more confusing that the theme of the project. It was just too much.

          • UniblabBR

            Sorry; only now I remembered to ask you whether you’ve ever read this. It makes Badlands even more fascinating. I can’t wait to get my hands on the new Criterion Blu-Ray…

  • Randy Gritter

    I always question labeling people who do things first as heroes. The first women to do this. The first black to do that. Sometimes it fits. Sometimes it was just time for that first to occur. The person who did it was just at that place at that time. They met their moment. Does that make them a hero?

    • brnicolosi

      Sometimes, I suppose. If being the first cost them more than they personally gained from it.


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