42: A Review

This is not a post about the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

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“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” – Jackie Robinson

A prophetic statement from the man who literally changed the face of baseball.

It is almost unthinkable that there was a time within the last 100 years when the color of your skin was a qualification from Major League Baseball. Even more unthinkable that Jackie Robinson was the beginning of racial integration in professional sports, not it’s climactic completion.

Sitting in the theatre watching the incredible story of Jackie Robinson unfold, I kept saying in my head:

I can’t believe that Remember the Titans, the story of a newly integrated high school football team in Tennessee, took place 30 years after this!

When it comes to prejudice and racial harmony in America, we have come a long way, but Jackie Robinson reminds that we are not as advanced as we’d like to think. There are few places where our sinful tendencies toward exclusion are more blatantly obvious than when it comes to our treatment of those who are different that we are.

42 is about what it takes to rise above such sinfulness: unwavering self-sacrifice.

The movie opens in the midst of a major shift in American life. WWII had just ended, the Great Depression seemed like a lifetime before, the country was poised to move into the next phase of its existence, and a young black ballplayer was about to turn society on its head. We are allowed to watch the progression of Jackie Robinson (powerfully portrayed by relative newcomer, Chadwick Boseman) from negro-league standout, to champion of American civil rights – before anyone had heard that term.

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Jackie’s rise was not by accident. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (age-appropriately and award-worthily acted by Harrison Ford) saw with prophetic insight the direction the country was going and decided that rather than sit by and watch it happen, he would be a part of ushering in the new era of integrated American sports.

For him, Jackie Robinson was the right man at the right time. He knew that black ball players in the Major League was simply a matter of time. Of this reality, he says:

I don’t know who he is or where he is, but he’s coming.

Enter Robinson, the savior of Major League Baseball. The movie chronicles well the absolutely impossible spot into which Robinson was placed: to be Jesus in the outfield. In a pivotal scene in the film, Robinson suggests that Branch Rickey wants a player who lacks the guts to fight back, and Rickey’s response sums up the tight rope that Robinson walked during his debut in the Majors:

I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.

What the audience is treated to for a good portion of the film is a man who continually lays his own life down for what he knows is right. Robinson plays for something more significant than personal or even cultural pride. He turns the other cheek at racist remarks and threats of violence. He chooses not to fight on his own behalf. Rather, he lays himself down, choosing to be mistreated for the greater cause of full racial integration in the major leagues.

I’m not familiar enough with Robinson’s story to tell you how accurately he is portrayed. Nevertheless, it is a powerful depiction of the type of sacrifice that Christians are called to take up for the cause of the Gospel in the world, and I applaud the filmmakers for making that so clear without straying (much) into sensationalism or sentimentality.

The movie itself is solid. Casting is very good across the board, with most minor parts filled by skilled actors. Nicole Beharie, was particularly powerful as Jackie’s unceasingly devoted
wife Rachel. And Alan Tudyk‘s portrayal of Ben Chapman, the bigot manager of the Phillies, provided the audience with a clear picture of the utter foolishness of the racism and hatred that Robinson endured.

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As I said already, Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Branch Rickey is a refreshing change for the film legend we all know. He seems very comfortable playing characters his own age and I hope this marks a new stage in his career. He may not receive an Oscar nom for the role, but he could, and it wouldn’t be undeserved. What he does so well in this film is deliver hard and heart felt dialogue with ease over and over again. It makes him utterly likable and a wonderful partner for our hero, played with incredible dignity by Chadwick Boseman.

Where 42 falls short is not with direction or pacing, but with something that would seem like a given in a film of this nature: heart. It is not heartless, but with the stakes of the film being so high, and the fact that these events actually took place, you would expect to feel more. The triumphs lacked the power that they may have had, and the darkest, most difficult moments never seemed to delve as deeply as they could. Not sure if this is a script issue or perhaps directing, but it is what will keep 42 just out of the upper echelon of sports films.

But this should not prevent anyone from going to see this one. In fact, I think everyone should see it. There’s a reason why it’s been in the box office top 10 for so long. It’s a great film and one that’s worth seeing for it’s historical significance, for it’s insight into current American culture, for its unashamed gospel parallels, and for a welcomed change from the big budget action that is beginning to crowd the theaters now. So go with confidence, take the older kids, and enjoy a well-crafted look at one of the most significant figures in the history of sports.

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