What Invictus did for rugby and South Africa, 42: The Story of a Jackie Robinson tries to do for baseball and America. It may not have the same grandiose ripple-effect, to us at least, that echoed throughout the sporting world but it definitely serves up its own tale of morality and strength in the face of despicable racism.
The true story of Jackie Robinson and how he came to sign on to the Brooklyn Dodgers with the help of Branch Rickey.
A very typical and run of the mill sports film and has all the clockwork construction you’d expect from this genre. Baseball enthusiasts won’t be disappointed.
The Bottom Line
The film opens with newsreel footage toasting the ‘greatest generation’ and bathes the era of FDR; Rita Hayworth; Tupperware; Jeep and American victory in an amber light of nostalgia. As the honorific continues, it slowly gathers an ironic weight – the same generation that closed the curtain on World War II was the same generation that freed up their afternoons and went down with their families to their local ballpark to shout nigger at Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first African American to play in major league baseball.
42 chronicles Robinson’s year in the minors and his first campaign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The film effectively recognises the wall of racially-motivated resistance that greeted Robinson upon his entry into a game that was for most of its history, regarded a white man’s game.
While not doing an especially good job of capturing Robinson’s personality – he’s more of an icon than a fully developed character – it effectively realizes the wall of racially-motivated resistance that greeted him upon his inauguration as a player in what was a white man’s game. When the Brooklyn Dodger’s general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells Robinson “I want a player with the guts not to fight back,” we understand what he was up against in 1947.
There are three separate stories contending for screen time here – Robinson’s personal tale outside of baseball with his wife and children; the horrendous racism that he (and many others with desires on the sport) had to face and of course how his actions influenced the sport and society as a whole. These separate threads never seem to know which speaks more directly to the film’s central themes and thus dilutes much of its obvious impact and potential.
There’s always something you desire to take from a story, as an audience member, when watching a film about racism or a film about sports and they’re usually incredibly varied pearls of wisdom. The film tries to sandwich these two together but stumbles a little around the rough edges. This is all nit-picking as most of the film is really quite sound and the performances what you would expect. The only real drawback would be the far too idealistic portrayal of Robinson in that his personality is almost non-existent in the film – he feels more like a new statue, just unveiled and never really captures a real sense of vulnerability and heroism. It’s all very generic and feels like this film could have succeeded better as a documentary. It’s nonetheless an extremely entertaining, well-constructed biopic that is worth the rental or weekend viewing.