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Photo by D. Stevens – © 2013 Legendary Pictures Productions LLC
Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford star in 42.
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
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Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (For thematic elements including language)
Directed By
Brian Helgeland
Run Time
2 hours 8 minutes
Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni
Theatre Release
April 12, 2013 by Warner Bros

Almost every shot in 42, the biopic of Jackie Robinson (the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues) feels like something out of a dream. Everything is soft-lit and gentle, no quick cuts or jarring effects. Each scene ends exactly when writer/director Brian Helgeland knows the scene has achieved its purpose.

And every scene in 42 has a clear purpose. Whether it's to show the baseball great (played by Chadwick Boseman) being a good father and husband, or to show the moral failure of every racist in the movie, or to illustrate the changing reactions of Jackie's teammates, every scene continues until it has delivered the full payload of whatever message Helgeland wants to convey.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture—© 2013 Legendary Pictures Productions LLC

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture—© 2013 Legendary Pictures Productions LLC

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture—© 2013 Legendary Pictures Productions LLC

What's problematic about this is that each scene is so transparently "meaningful" as to render the individual characters meaningless. They are cutouts trotted onstage to act in not a biopic, but an overarching fable of Racism Is Bad, Y'All. Jackie can't be fully human. To be fully human is to embody weaknesses as well as strengths, and Helgeland seems terrified of complicating matters.

Every racist who isn't just a featured extra is a racist because of individual moral failure, or because of his or her own indoctrination by society. (In one notable scene, a young white child sits in the bleachers and, hearing his parent hurl epithets at Robinson, proceeds to do the same, all the while looking very sad and guilty.) Every upright character in the movie eventually comes around to Jackie's side. And within the context of the film, there's no other possible justification for not wanting baseball to integrate besides "I hate black people."

The meta-narrative presented is that the individual moral evil of racism can be annihilated by the enlightened ideals of tolerance and ethics. And this means that 42 fails in ways that could damage its viewer. In depicting racism as an exclusively moral (rather than systemic) issue, the film alleges that we've beat it.

In this world, racism is only perpetrated by capital-R-Racists, people who chew tobacco, and wear overalls and pinky rings, and say things like "You better learn your place, boy." The problem is that in teaching the audience "These people are racist," the film accidentally reinforces the conception that "Only these people are racist." As long as you don't say things like "I hate black people," you're not racist. Either you are for racism or against racism. But the threshold of "against racism" is very, very low, where pretty much as long as you're not actively not throwing rocks at black people, you're not racist.

Jackie Robinson's story is inspiring and, to the contemporary audience, obviously a tale of good winning out over bigotry and ignorance. It doesn't need to be propped up by ad hominem attacks on people who opposed him or by so strongly polarizing the issue. The film seems almost insecure. It's afraid that if Robinson isn't portrayed as a perfect paragon of restraint and class, if he ever once cracks, then the entire argument falls apart. This is disrespectful to both history and to Robinson himself. Making the story some race-themed fairy tale makes it seem like it isn't strong enough to stand on its own.

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