Thursday, December 4, 2014

42 (Warner Bros./Legendary, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was 42, a quite remarkable production from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures last year, written and directed by Brian Helgeland and telling the story of Jackie Robinson and how he integrated Major League Baseball as a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Charles wondered why the film was given so enigmatic a title as 42 — the number of Jackie Robinson’s uniform (and for the 50th anniversary of his major-league debut in 1947 Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the number 42 would be permanently retired by all the major-league teams, though players currently using 42 would be grandfathered in and be allowed to keep that number until they retire) — instead of something including Jackie Robinson’s name in the title. He assumed that far more viewers interested in Robinson’s tale but not overall baseball fans would have been attracted to a film called Jackie Robinson than one called 42, but there had already been a film about him from 1950 called The Jackie Robinson Story with Robinson playing himself on screen and the fine Black actress Ruby Dee as his wife Rachel. (Ruby Dee was the person I would have liked to see star in the film adaptation of Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, with Billie’s own records used to represent her inimitable singing; instead, of course, the film got turned into a putrid vehicle for Diana Ross, who actually did a decent job given how horrendously miscast she was but got saddled with a script that scrapped the truth of Billie’s life story — including scenes she described in the book that would have made great movie sequences — and substituted the most God-awful Hollywood clichés.) I have a VHS tape of this film and was able to find a download of The Jackie Robinson Story on, though about my only serious memory of it is that for some reason the screenwriter decided to change the name of the team Robinson played for in the Negro Leagues from the Kansas City Monarchs to the “Black Panthers”! Anyway, 42 turned out to be an excellent movie, mainly because though it’s a recent film it’s told in a deliberately old-fashioned style, with long takes, well framed compositions and, at least in the exteriors (including the scenes actually representing baseball games), a realistic sense of color instead of the dirty-aquarium look all too common these days. The film lasts 128 minutes but manages not to seem padded (as too many modern films that push past the two-hour mark do), and what makes it work is the fine cast as well as Helgeland’s understated writing. While there’s a sense at some points that he’s cherry-picking Robinson’s real life for material he can structure along the familiar Hollywood clichés of the success movie as well as the sports movie, he’s also a highly talented screenwriter working over material that plays to his strengths as a director. It’s interesting that his previous writing credits include films for actor-directors like Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) and Kevin Costner (The Postman), because Helgeland’s work here shows the same kind of understated acting generally found in films made by actor-directors.

His cast is near-perfect; as Robinson he found a young performer named Chadwick Boseman (who alas is being run through the superhero meatgrinder; after this film he did another Black biopic, Get On Up, about James Brown — thereby playing both sides of what used to be called the “Willie Mays-Louis Armstrong syndrome,” in which Black people were assumed to have only two avenues of success available to them: sports and entertainment — and he’s currently playing a superhero called the “Black Panther” in the Marvel universe, just as Tobey Maguire got plucked away from promising roles like his wide-eyed aspiring young Gay writer in Wonder Boys to play Spider-Man) who’s absolutely right, wiry, formidably athletic and also able to portray the torture Robinson went through, not only from the racist abuse he got from teammates, opponents and audience members alike, but from the ongoing injunction he was under not to show any temper and especially not to fight back. He’s matched by Nicole Beharie as his wife Rachel (or “Rae,” as he called her and she’s usually addressed in the film), a deceptively meek-looking slip of a young Black woman who turns out, if anything, to be more racially militant in asserting her civil rights than her husband, especially in a scene in which she uses a whites-only restroom at an airport and gets both herself and Jackie thrown off the plane they were waiting for. But the real star of the movie is Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who turns in a wonderfully authoritative old-salt performance as a marvelously ambiguous character, who claims his only motivations for bringing in a Black player and breaking down the color line of Major League Baseball are to tap a previously unexploited talent pool and draw African-American audiences into Ebbets Field, but who — like Robinson himself — is obviously aware of the racial minefield he’s stepping into and the way hiring a Black player is going to make him a civil-rights pioneer whether he wants to be one or not. Helgeland’s well-structured script includes the character of Black reporter Wendell Smith (André Holland), who introduces himself to Robinson as “your Boswell” (Robinson responds with a stare of blank incomprehension — though given that he’d gone to UCLA I had a hard time believing he’d graduated without having at least heard of John Boswell) and follows him around as chauffeur, bodyguard, early-warning system and civil-rights conscience.

What’s most remarkable about 42 is it depicts the racism Robinson had to contend with honestly and believably without hitting us over the head with it; Helgeland realized that the reality was so ugly, from the constant uses of the word “nigger” (notably from the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager, Ben Chapman, who goads Robinson so vilely and insistently when the Dodgers and Phillies play each other he, like some of the other white players, seems more interested in goading Robinson into an embarrassing fight than in beating him and the Dodgers on the field) to the ugly central-casting “cracker” stereotype who comes out to see Wendell Smith one night and says if Robinson is still there in the morning … well, the exact threat is left chillingly unspecified but it sounds like the Ku Klux Klan is going to lynch him (and the counterbalancing old white guy who looks just as “redneck” but turns out to be supportive, saying that in America it shouldn’t matter what color a man is if he can deliver the goods); and the supercilious hotel manager who cancels the reservations of the entire Dodger team when the team bus arrives and Robinson is on it. (Robinson, true to what we know about his real-life character as well as the way he’s drawn in this movie, offers to spend the night somewhere else if the hotel will honor the reservations of the white men on the team, but to no avail.) There’s also the chilling scene in which the white Dodgers circulate a petition to Rickey telling him they will refuse to play if a Black man is on their team — including one who makes such a big to-do about it that Rickey offers to trade him to another team if he still feels that way by the trading deadline (only by the time of the deadline, he’s changed his mind, come to value Robinson as a teammate, and withdraws his request for a trade). I remember talking about Jackie Robinson to a friend and explaining that, given that sports is one human endeavor in which the outcomes are a matter of statistical record — points scored, games won, end-of-season standings and the myriad other statistics baseball fans (more than those of any other sport) obsess over — Robinson’s success was measurable in objective terms. Before he joined the Dodgers in 1947, the team had made the World Series only once (in 1941); during the ten years he played for them they made the World Series six times and won it once (in 1955), a record which led not only the Dodgers but other teams in the majors to recruit Black players to get some of that comparative advantage for themselves.

The theme of the movie is eloquently expressed in a scene between Robinson and Rickey in which Rickey tells him that under no circumstances must he respond to the racial taunts in public no matter how bad they get — then, Rickey says, audiences won’t remember that the Black man was provoked; all they’ll remember is that the Black man started a fight — and Robinson says, “You mean you want someone who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” “No,” says Rickey, “I want someone who has the guts not to fight back.” Throughout the film Helgeland delicately balances the story of Jackie Robinson’s inner turmoil (including the spectacular scene in which he holds it together in public but loses it as soon as he gets in the hallway between the field and the dressing rooms, then beats the shit out of the walls with his bat — “Who does he think he is, me?” I found myself asking myself) with the story of the Dodgers’ 1947 pennant race and the ways Robinson’s presence both hurt them and helped them; it was a major distraction from the business of winning ballgames but it was also a major distraction for everyone else they played, and in particular the opponents who were goaded by Robinson’s presence on the field to obsess over him and make stupid mistakes (in one scene, an opposing pitcher gets so discomfited by Robinson he drops the ball on the mound and the batter gets a base on balls and walks Robinson home). One typical trope of baseball movies is showing Robinson as a major home-run hitter, which he wasn’t; his skills were fielding and base-running (and the film does show him stealing bases, including one famous game in which he stole home, something that almost never happens).

Overall, 42 is a great movie, ranking alongside The Pride of the Yankees, Eight Men Out and Moneyball in my personal pantheon of baseball films, though my hero Christopher Meloni is somewhat wasted in the role of Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (that’s Hollywood anti-typecasting at its worst, casting tall, muscular Meloni as short, wiry Durocher — almost as bad as casting short, wiry Tom Cruise as Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher, a role that should have been Meloni’s almost by divine right!); though we get a scene of him naked from the waist up in bed with a woman (“So that’s why you wanted to watch this movie!” Charles joked), shortly thereafter he’s banned from baseball for a year by Commissioner Happy Chandler (a former Southern governor who, ironically, lost his chance to be George Wallace’s running mate for vice-president in 1968 because he had presided over baseball when it became integrated) for an affair with said woman, a Hollywood star carefully unnamed in Helgeland’s script (it was Laraine Day) and Rickey has to dredge up Bert Shotton (Max Gail — so a veteran of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is replaced by a veteran of my other all-time favorite cop show on TV, Barney Miller!) out of retirement to manage his team through the minefields of a close pennant race and a civil-rights battle. Ironically, baseball is now the least racially integrated of America’s major team sports, mainly because it’s lost its “cool” factor and young Black athletes are more inclined to pursue football or basketball — and the major-domos of Major League Baseball are once again wondering how to get people of color to buy tickets to their games when there aren’t that many people who look like them on the teams.