“42” opens as postwar America is ushering in a renewed and thriving democracy. And sports reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland)—a black man barred from the press box, who sits at each game in the stands behind third base with his typewriter in his lap—believes that all that should matter is the numbers in your box score and your batting average, not your religion, your political leanings, or the color of your skin. Major League Baseball executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) agrees, and he wants to break the color barrier and sign the first player of color to the Brooklyn Dodgers. He settles on Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman): a fast, temperamental shortstop whose Army and UCLA background have previously associated him with white men.
Pulling Robinson from the Negro leagues, trying him out on the Montreal Royals, and eventually including him in the Dodgers lineup, Rickey makes history, money, and his fair share of enemies. While large numbers of black people buy out the colored-only section of the stadiums, the press watches with bated breath for catastrophe.
Robinson is a cultural icon and American hero, and his story is perfect for a sports film. At first glance, it is not cinematically new: It relies on a swelling soundtrack, slow-motion runs to steal home, and other conventional tropes. Where it breaks tradition well is in its exploration of the trials and triumphs of a pioneering team yearning for the World Series pennant, underscored by the stain of racism.
The message, thus, is far more important than the medium. This is made clear in the interaction between Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. Early on, we discover the two men's shared Methodist faith. From the beginning, when Rickey asks his new champion to fight wars, not with fists or words, but rather with dignity, the viewer is taught a powerful lesson in morality—especially the viewer with a faith background. Rickey’s condition for drafting Robinson relies on his ability to be a man who has the guts not to fight back, and it is this theme that resonates most strongly in the film.
Robinson, so Rickey believes, can win the racism battle and integrate into a “white man’s” league as a great baseball player—despite the name-calling, the hundreds of life-threatening letters, and the slights and slurs—if he bears it all with dignity and grace. Jackie knows that he cannot fight back and any act of aggression or defense would be convoluted by the press to spoil his image. Jackie must be a great baseball player, certainly; but most of all, he must be a gentleman.
Robinson’s resolve, his ability to hold his temper, turn the other cheek, and focus on the bat and ball and not the next slur from the outbox or the audience, are nothing less than the practice of Christian patience. More than once, Robinson is inspired to think of Christ: the ridicule and taunting Jesus bore, but also His moments alone in the wilderness when tempted by Satan. For Jackie, this example hits close to home when he has to endure the racist rants of Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk).
Jackie, having taken the plate and within reach of his next home run, hears verbal abuse directed at him and his wife and family, not to mention his greater community, and he bears it with great stoicism before retreating behind the dugout for a much needed meltdown out of the public eye. Rickey is there, of course, to inspire and encourage him to get back out, to take it standing—blow by blow—and to recognize that he’s fighting a battle on the homefront comparable to the battle against fascism that was fought by American troops overseas.
As Jackie Robinson steals home, hits several out of the park, and straddles between first and second base with aplomb; so Branch Rickey fights his fight in his corner office, Abraham Lincoln bookends margining his literary collection, often on the telephone with managers and owners of other teams opposed to having Jackie on their field, even as a competitor. “Do you think God likes baseball?” Rickey asks the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who threatens to cancel a game due to Robinson’s impending arrival. “Someday you’re going to meet Him, and when He asks you why you didn’t take the field against Robinson and you’re saying it is because he’s a Negro—may not be a sufficient reply.”
Robinson himself attests that “God built [him] to last,” and proves it though hatred surrounds him. Nevertheless, no human is without limitation or weakness and the most moving parts of the story arise when Robinson is tested to the core. God works through many ways and speaks through many mediums. Sometimes in grand gestures, yes, but sometimes by tearing down cultural barriers on a field, uniting a team in spirit and drive, and helping a first-class gentleman, talented and resilient, to bear the brunt of bigotry and racism and ultimately steal home.
The overt racism and racial slurs will be difficult for some viewers to witness and hear; they were for me. Prospective moviegoers should be aware of the language used not gratuitously but for historical accuracy. Yet the film can be used to act as a wonderful means of pre-evangelism, with strong faith elements to spark discussion. It is also appropriate for younger viewers, should a careful discussion about the language and content be held before and/or after viewing.
Image copyright Warner Bros.
Rachel McMillan is a writer in Toronto. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.