The entire life of Jackie Robinson is a rich subject for a film adaptation, not that this would be obvious after viewing 42, Brian Helgeland’s fourth feature film. The youngest of five, Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers in 1919. As a youth, he was a gang member (briefly), an accomplished track runner, football, tennis and baseball player, as well as a military man. (He was a member of the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion.) Robinson often spoke out against racism and suffered as a result. Long before Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Robinson was courtmartialed for refusing to move to the back of a military bus. He did all this before becoming the first African American to play in major league baseball at age twenty-eight. All this can be learned from Robinson’s Wikipedia page, but not from 42, despite the film’s ostensible status as the icon’s biopic.
As a result, as a story about the life of Jackie Robinson, 42 is an utter disappointment. Yet as a portrait of segregated, post-war America, 42 serves its purpose (a purpose very different from that of a biopic), and if viewed primarily as a baseball movie, Helgeland’s film becomes a wholly enjoyable and thrilling experience, perhaps even a triumph.
42 focuses on two legends in American baseball—Branch Rickey (played by an appropriately theatrical Harrison Ford), the executive of Major League Baseball who first integrated the sport, and Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) who became the first black to play in the majors when he signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The plot of 42 follows Robinson’s transition from the Negro Leagues to the Minor Leagues, and then to the Dodgers (and its effect on baseball and the whole of America).
As Robinson, Boseman embodies the rebelliousness and strength of a reluctant hero. He captures this tension down to his very jawline, simultaneously wearing the stress of segregation (and desegregation) and a love of the game throughout the film. Sadly, his talent is underutilized in a story with little concern for Jackie Robinson, the man. The relationship between Robinson and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) gives viewers some perspective on the main character, but one’s understanding of the couple (how they came to meet and fall in love, for example) is still severely limited. At one point, Rachel encourages Jackie against the racists he encounters, saying, “If they knew you, they would be ashamed.” Sadly, not having been provided any insights into the man by the film, the audience will have to take her word for it.
Still, there is much that 42 gets right. In addition to strong performances from the main characters, members of the supporting cast stand out as well, including Chris Meloni in his role as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. And as director and writer of the script, Helgeland must be applauded for painting an honest portrait of American values. Rather than tell the story of a hopeful, forward-moving America the beautiful, Helgeland focuses on capitalism and its role in desegregating the business of baseball. In 42, the desire for money and the desire for equal rights are two driving forces that are not mutually exclusive in pre-civil rights America.
42 is at its best when it enters the stadiums and brings the story of Jackie Robinson, the American Legend to life. Brutal racism on the field and the sheer thrill of the game (which even non-baseball lovers will feel) collide with every violent pitch, with every homerun. In focusing on the nature of the game as it was experienced by Robinson, and the love of the game (and every main character, in the end, displays this unconditional love for the game), 42 delivers a powerful story, adding one more crucial piece to the puzzle that is American history. But as for a fleshed-out biopic that provides more pieces to the puzzle that was Jackie Robinson, the man? For that, you’ll have to wait.
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie
Release Date: April 12, 2013