42’s Legacy

By the time Audrey Hepburn had made her Hollywood debut and won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953), Jackie Robinson had played major league baseball for six years with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  When he was inducted into the Baseball of Fame on July 23, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was still alive, James Bond* was a few months shy of being introduced to the public as a cinematic icon, and by the end of the year prisoners from the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba went back home to the US.

In case you haven’t guessed, I watched the sports biopic 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013).  It depicts key moments in Jackie Robinson’s life between 1945 and 1947, though the extent of historical accuracy in the sense of X actually happened in the manner presented is up for disclaimers.  Please see SBNation, History News Network, and ESPN for more information in that regard.


The film opens with a historical context reel narrated by Wendell Smith (Andre Holland).  America might have saved the (modern) world from the horrible agendas of the Axis Powers but back home, a hero’s welcome is hard to come by…even harder if you aren’t white.  It is in this existentially fraught environment that Jackie Robinson (a terrific Chadwick Boseman) goes about doing what he was born to do: play baseball.

42 is a beautiful film; it’s wonderful to behold for its subtle humor and cinematography. The acting is excellent all around too (Nicole Beharie is especially impressive as Robinson’s fiancee, and it’s always good to see Christopher Meloni playing someone who isn’t doing detective work in a special victim’s unit).  The wardrobe department and set designers and decorators must have gone to great lengths to imbue the film with a historically authentic mise-en-scene.

Despite its visual splendor, it isn’t the tightest film.  When it ended, I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more effective as a series of vignettes juxtaposed against conversations from scholars, journalists, historians, and any surviving friend or relative of Robinson’s.  (Shameless, unaffiliated plug for the documentary about Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon that airs April 11 and 12 9pm and 11pm EST on your local PBS station — check your local listings!).  

As a sports biopic, 42 is formulaic, psychologically powerful without being excessively tense, and eager to fill you with hope.  The contrast between two specific sequences produces an effect that both clobbers and heals the heart.  The first, ugly scene occurs when the Philadelphia Phillies are playing the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Phillies’ coach, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), hurls so many racist remarks at Robinson that one wonders if there will be any reprieve from or retribution for having witnessed it…as a film-goer.**

If you don’t come away from that scene feeling as though you’re ashamed to be in the same “room” as the Phillies coach and want to travel back in time to apologize to Jackie Robinson on behalf of a less bigoted future, then you have achieved satori and there’s nothin’ left to see here.  If, though, you do find it uncomfortable hearing those words and remembering that, “hey, are we any kinder to each other in 2016 than the people of 1947 were to one another?”  (Peut-etre un peu? Pas du tout?), then, you’re going to demand for some kind of pay-back.

As a much needed and pleasantly surprising challenge to that scene is the second, marvelous sequence when the Dodgers play in Cincinnati.  Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) puts his arm around Robinson.  The camera films in a high-angle medium shot as he smiles and you can hear the crowd gasp.***  That unassuming but profound gesture of Pee Wee walking up to Jackie and sharing in the human experience is what the 21st century needs to remember.  You see, isn’t your heart mending already?


And yet… what 42 and the Jesse Owens biopic Race have pushed me to consider is whether or not a person is worth a chance to be welcomed and accepted if a person doesn’t demonstrate a capacity for excellence in the performative, physiological, or intellectual achievements of being human.  Do the best and brightest have to take on the mantle of pathfinder before the lukewarm and decent can even have a place to get a better view?


*Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962), starring Sean Connery, was the first Bond film to be released.

**SB Nation has a good summary of this moment.  And, every time I see Alan Tudyk I think of Steven Weber.

*** Note: According to the Jackie Robinson documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, that gesture was a thing of myth-making; it probably never really happened.  If it did, the press would’ve reported it and surely there’d have been witnesses…still living witnesses.

4 thoughts on “42’s Legacy

    1. sittingpugs Post author

      Compelling piece indeed.

      Then Joe Louis came along. He was too good to deny a shot at the championship, which he won in 1937. The following year, in a showdown with Germany’s Max Schmeling, Louis rallied Americans—including even some Southern whites—to his side, eager to see him prevail over Hitler’s favorite fighter. In a battle followed around the world, Louis destroyed Schmeling in two minutes of the first round. It was likely the first time that many white Americans had rooted for a black man to do anything—let alone prevail against another white man, one of European descent.

      Individual sports like boxing are more conducive to allowing members of the Other to participate and excel. It’s just one person against another person. Even if more and more of the Other came onto the scene, you’re not going to get twelve of the Other against twelve of the Subject…otherwise, you’d have a dance-off or two acapella groups competing with each other.

      And in these public-facing stages, there’s inevitably more than one trailblazer, each person who garners more press, more accolades, more acceptance always has a predecessor. And when a certain amount of time passes, there’s a reconsideration of the popular narrative surrounding these “firsts” — what began as a display of magnificent feat turns into objectifying and exoticization of those Others.

      I bring my lenses down to the prime-archetypical binaries: male and female, masculin et feminine. Objectifying the male body period ends up as the last frontier and it’s always got its doors open.

  1. Christopher

    Here’s another piece *you might like*. Its writer sees a link between baseball and American Exceptionalism.

    In respect of the description of the preliminaries just before the start of the first game of this season, I noted this, “………the country singer Neal McCoy stands near the pitcher’s mound and belts out The Star-Spangled Banner……………Everyone cheers as the final notes fade away, and a pair of F-16 fighter jets bank low over the stadium…….”

    I noted also the large photo above this piece, showing a huge Stars and Stripes covering almost the entire field. This is the sort of scene that mutatis mutandis one might see at a public sporting event in, say, North Korea. But………in America?!!

    1. sittingpugs Post author

      Have you ever had to learn and recite the pledge of any allegiance? Perhaps not so much post-2010, but anyone going to school in the US during the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush Jr years learn to internalize patriotism as much as they learn how to tell time, add fractions, and write a five-paragraph essay. The pledge of allegiance to the American flag, the National Anthem, and many other songs are/were an integral part of childhood.

      As more and more citizens of other nations come to live permanently in the US, there’s has to be an ideological unifying element. The stars and the stripes is the most potent of elements, even when it doesn’t inspire faith or good will or promises kept. From one angle, it should be the flag wrapped around a Judeo-Christian dogmatic text, but we’ve come so far (and oddly almost full-circle) from that notion to resurrect such habits.

      It just dawned on me that the pursuit of riches and more profits might have had a more profound impact on secularizing American society than any large organization of good ‘ol Christian folk realizing that everyone should be free to worship their god or no god at all, and that’s how it should be.

      I like that Guardian article’s jab at the various names the ballpark in Arlington has had. C’est dommage quand le nom de l’arène sportive doit être un nom d’entreprise plutôt que juste un nom ordinaire.


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