’42’ Makes You Believe in Racists

’42’ Makes You Believe in Racists May 5, 2013

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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