42 and Jackie Robinson’s Legacy of Nonviolence

Review of 42, Directed by Brian Helgeland

The story of Jackie Robinson is familiar to most Americans, but being an American who grew up overseas, I must confess ignorance of this iconic hero before watching 42. (The educational value of the film itself makes it worth watching: among other things, 42 underlines the exalted position of “race” in the American consciousness). America’s pastime was tainted by the pollution of segregation and 42 tells us of a man who tried to expunge this stain while embodying the spirit that would find full-bodied voice in Martin Luther King’s crusade.

Since most of our readers already know the Jackie Robinson tale, I won’t rehash the details. 42 begins with Jackie’s career in an all-black league and covers the two years after he first begins playing in 1947. The opening montage of historical film clips describe the service African-Americans gave their country in WWII, only to return to their homes and find that they were still treated unequally despite great sacrifice. This sets the stage for this race-infused narrative.

While 42 is the story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the story is just as much about Branch Ricky (Harrison Ford), the owner of the Dodgers who decides to induct the first African-American into Major League Baseball. When Ricky first announces his intentions in his New York office to flabbergasted employees, he coats it in the language of profit. By having an African-American on the team, they will draw more crowds from the black community. As Ricky says, money is not black or white, it’s green.

This scene is juxtaposed by Jackie Robinson’s all-black league team parking at a gasoline station to refill their bus tank. When Jackie wants to use the toilet, the station owner reminds him that he knows he’s not allowed since he’s colored. He reverses his decision when Jackie tells the team to get back on the bus and find another station where they’re allowed to use the restroom. Again, desegregation driven by profit.

Ricky continues to follow this line of reasoning for most of the film. But simultaneously, he shows himself to be a deeply moral man who is quick to quote Scripture. When reviewing Jackie’s file, he smugly notes that Jackie’s a Methodist, that Ricky is a Methodist, and that God himself is a Methodist (drawing laughs from the audience). As Jackie’s career continues to blossom and hostility mounts, we see Ricky increasingly play a father role–mixing tough talk with tear-jerking compassion. In the end, we learn that Ricky’s reasons for introducing an African-American into MLB is not purely commercial.

Ricky is arguably the most lovable character in the film. His pithy one-liners accentuate every scene he’s in. But he also espouses the philosophy of nonviolence in an earthy way, laced with Biblical cadences, and in many ways he keeps Jackie on the road of nonviolence. Ricky wants Jackie Robinson to have “the guts not to hit back,” which takes more guts than to blindly return wound for wound. He quotes Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” dictum to Jackie. Jackie must control his anger in the face of ridicule and persistent inequality when he’s not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates and gets visceral boos from the crowds. Ricky channels the Christianity-infused nonviolence that Martin Luther King preached. It’s impossible to not hear the rumblings of King’s dream throughout the film.

I’m not a Civil Rights scholar nor have I read the works of Taylor Branch, but I think it’s hard to refute the power of Christianity for social change. Whether Christianity should play such a role is another question. There’s a lot of conversation in the media and over the thousands of cups of coffee about the role of the church in political issues. We hear names bandied about–Niebuhr, Kuyper, Hauerwas. The traditions of Augustine, Luther, and Anabaptists still echo through the halls of church history. This is a movie review, not an essay on Christian political philosophy, so I can’t presume to solve these riddles here—but I was impressed that a baseball movie could suggest such complex themes, even if only in passing.

42 was cheesy at times, but that’s to be expected of what is, after all, a fairly standard sports hero biopic. It didn’t include the more violent aspects of Jackie’s story. The death threats he received are only revealed at the end of the film from a file cabinet in Ricky’s office. But by avoiding more violent elements, the film remains viewable for a younger age group, which is crucial for the film’s success in keeping Jackie’s legacy alive.  That’s a fine thing for a movie to do—even if this movie, like all movies, was made by investors seeking to make a profit.

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