The story of 42 happened more than seventy years ago. It happened on the other side of the world and centred around a sport that I, like most people in Australia, give very little of a crap about. But even with all that, I knew who Jackie Robinson was before I watched the movie. I knew why he was famous, and why his story is so important. That’s what makes the story of 42 so interesting, but also what makes the execution of 42 kind of a let down as a movie.
In post war America, the game of baseball is segregated, with completely separate leagues for white and black players. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides to recruit a player from the Negro Leagues. You see, until this time, there hadn’t been any laws or league regulations to stop interracial teams, just good old fashioned racism. While Rickey claims his intentions to recruit a black player, any black player, are all about attracting a large, untapped ticket buying black crowd, and to help win a World Series, as the movie moves forward, he’s painted as a genuine progressive with more ultraistic motives.
Rickey recruits Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and the colour barrier is broken. The end. Only, this is mid twentieth century America, so it’s not the end, it’s the beginning of a whole lot of bigotry and intolerance. Even though Robinson is recruited by the Dodgers in the opening scenes, 42 depicts several years of Robinson playing in the majors before any sort of acceptance is even hinted at.
Everything not so great about 42 comes down to biopic clichés. From the second the movies starts, you won’t have any trouble predicting the story arcs, the beats of when things will go well, when they’ll come crashing down and when you can expect the soaring, schmaltzy music. In the opening titles, it says, “based on a true story”. I’d say the reason it’s only “based on” a true story, and not simply an actual true story, is because a few too many liberties have been taken in making it fit neatly into a nice, three act, biopic structure that can be easily digested.
But amongst all of these familiar clichés is also what I found to be the most effective part of 42. While the racist bad guys have every red neck tick and affectation turned up to 11 to make sure we hate them, some of the more toned down depictions of the time were a lot more effective. A shot of the black crowd walking into a ballpark, through a gate with a giant sign reading “Coloreds Only”, made the attitudes of the day seem much more real and horrifying than every slur shouting cartoonish character in the movie put together.
Another thing 42 highlighted for me, and I’m sure the film makers would hate hearing that someone come away with something so trivial, is how boring baseball is. I know this could sound a bit rich coming from a cricket fan, but when you see a score board that’s all zeroes, but for a single, lonely “1” in the middle, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would subject themselves to watching a game where so little happens.
Directed By – Brian Helgeland
Written By – Brian Helgeland