Does 42 avoid showing us the faith of its protagonists?

Does 42 avoid showing us the faith of its protagonists? April 15, 2013

Sometimes you read a critique of a film that makes you wonder if the person who wrote that critique has actually seen the film in question. Such is the case with a recent USA Today column by Eric Metaxas on the Jackie Robinson movie 42, which opened this past weekend.

In his column, Metaxas writes that the film “simply avoids” and “doesn’t tell us” about “the devout Christian faith” that motivated Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey when they agreed that Robinson should turn the other cheek in response to racial slurs and the like. But Metaxas is simply wrong about that.

In point of fact, in the scene where Rickey tells Robinson that he wants a player “with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey also tells Robinson to turn the other cheek “like our Saviour.” The movie’s Rickey might not pull out a book on the life of Christ and read a section on the Sermon on the Mount like the historical Rickey did, but that’s still a more explicit religious reference than we get in the equivalent scene from The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), in which Robinson played himself.

Fast-forward to the 24-minute mark in the 1950 movie and note how, when Rickey asks Robinson what he would do if someone punched him in the cheek, Robinson replies: “Mr Rickey, I’ve got two cheeks.” That’s certainly an indirect reference to the teaching of Jesus, but it assumes only a familiarity with the saying, not knowledge of where it came from.

So, on that level, as far as this particular scene is concerned, the new film is more explicit about the characters’ religious motivation than the original film was. What’s more, in the new film, when Rickey first decides to make his offer to Robinson, he bases his decision, somewhat humorously, on their shared denominational affiliation: “Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist!”

And then, after Rickey offers the job to Robinson, there are further scenes in which Rickey chastises one of his team managers for breaking the biblical rule against adultery, and in which Rickey warns one of his fellow team owners that God won’t look kindly on his racism on Judgment Day, etc., etc.

So I really don’t get the criticism that 42 “simply avoids” and “doesn’t tell us” about the faith of its protagonists. In Rickey’s case, in particular, the film is actually more explicit than we might expect of a mainstream Hollywood film.

Which is not to say that the film couldn’t have gone further than it does. Metaxas is particularly correct, I think, when it comes to the faith of Robinson himself; apart from the one reference to Robinson being a Methodist, I can’t remember there being any further indications that Robinson had any particular religious faith himself.

But then, this is part of an even bigger problem with the film, namely the fact that it doesn’t really situate Robinson within any sort of community. Does he have friends, or family, apart from his wife? Well, we are told that his family attended his wedding — but we never see them or experience their presence. And this has the effect of making Robinson come across as much more of a loner than I’d hope he really was.

The 1950 film is better in this regard, at least. In the new film, Robinson calls his girlfriend and proposes to her over the phone right after Rickey makes his offer — but in the original film, Robinson calls home and asks his mother and brother for advice, and his mother advises him to find a church and ask one of the pastors for advice. She also tells him, “Any time you’ve got a real problem, listen to God about it.”

The pastor himself doesn’t turn out to have anything all that religious to say, but still, the point is made that Robinson had both family and faith — and that he was open to seeking input from faith leaders outside of the black community. (The pastor he speaks to in The Jackie Robinson Story is white, not black.)

The fact that 42 underscores Rickey’s faith while all but omitting any reference to Robinson’s faith is interesting from another angle, too.

For years, there has been a tendency in mainstream film and television — including films that deal with the history of race relations — to downplay the religiosity of the white characters while underscoring the religiosity of the black characters.

You can see this in movies like Glory (1989), where, the night before the soldiers go into battle, the black troops conduct an impromptu outdoors religious service, while the white officers sit in a tent and nurse their drinks.

You can even see it, sort of, in the way that a big deal was made over the presence of a white male Christian in the first season of Survivor (2000), but no one seemed to notice or care that one of the other contestants that year was a black female Christian who was just as open about her own faith. (He brought a Bible to the island and read it; she brought a diary and included memorized Bible verses in her entries.) In pop culture terms, the white guy’s faith was thought to be unusual and therefore newsworthy, whereas the black girl’s faith was just par for the course.

But now I wonder if the tables are turning somewhat. Sports-themed films like 42 and The Blind Side (2009) have underscored the religious faith of white characters who take black characters under their wing, but they have not harped on the faith of the black characters themselves all that strongly. (I haven’t seen The Blind Side in years, though, so admittedly, I might be forgetting something.)

These films are also coming out at a time when Hollywood is making an extra effort, however fitful, to promote its films to evangelical audiences. That might explain the progress as far as portrayals of the white characters’ faith is concerned, but I’m not sure how to account for the relative downplaying of the black characters’ faith — except, perhaps, to say that this might be a sign of how black characters are coming into the mainstream, and the mainstream is typically defined in secular terms.

In any case, Metaxas is apparently working on a book that gets into Robinson’s religious faith somewhat, and I can appreciate that he wishes the film had gone into more detail. But there’s a lot more going on here than he gives it credit for.

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