Brian Helgeland hasn't directed much, but he has written some modern classics. From Man on Fire to L.A. Confidential Helgeland has been able to weave tremendous stories. As the writer and director on this film, 42, his job was not an easy one. The task of telling the story of Jackie Robinson takes a considerable level of skill. How does one tell his story without alienating certain audiences? Viewers who are interested in the sports aspect and not the racial one or vice versa are the concern. It’s a hard road to run keeping the audience informed of difficult times in American history and keeping them thoroughly entertained. 42 goes about it in a fashion that I think can be a lesson for tackling civil rights in films. Don’t bother backing down from the rough topics, embrace them and make it a human moment. This movie is a 2+ hour lesson in the human experience.
The movie opens with a montage describing life for black people after World War 2 and into the film’s present (1946). This scene helps lay the foundation for people not quite familiar with history or the black American experience. I found it rather forgettable, but in hindsight I see its value. The true beginning to the film is a conversation between Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) and his two employees. As the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey has the plan to add a black man into Major League Baseball (a.k.a. white baseball) for the first time. What gave Rickey’s character instant credibility for me were his motives. They weren’t heartfelt out of the pure love for equality. Rather Rickey knew that it would generate him more income. I have to begrudgingly respect his level of honesty. What I didn’t want was some white knight (no pun intended) that rides into town to save all the black folks just because. Human beings are greedy creatures by nature and I’m glad Rickey was portrayed honestly. When Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is introduced to Branch Rickey the two begin a journey with each other that feels more like father and son than a mentoring relationship. I was very appreciative of their interaction. There was an instant level of respect from both sides that made things seem more genuine. The other relationship that is looked at in 42 is the one between Jackie and Rae (Nicole Beharie), his wife. This relationship dwarfed any of Jackie’s other interactions, with Branch Rickey’s being no exception. Jackie and Rae were the first onscreen black couple I’ve seen in a very long time that were simultaneously powerful, loving, and true. Robinson’s successes on and off the field were just as much his doing as it was Rae’s. She was no shrinking violet and was given several opportunities to shine in her own right; something not seen to often in roles like this. As I think back to many other black films I am not so sure I can name a better-portrayed couple than these two.
The majority of what I loved about 42 was its ability to take on racism head on. I compare it directly to last year’s abysmal Tuskegee Airmen action/drama Red Tails. While Red Tails shucked and jived (yeah that’s on purpose) to avoid as much uncomfortable moments as possible to make a movie for everyone, 42 went the opposite way. While I think 42 is a movie for everyone I think the director accomplished this by not being afraid to trust his audience. There are signs of hard stares, talks of lynch mobs, and flat out grade A racism. One such moment being when Jackie Robinson has to deal with the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). There is no way after watching those scenes does anyone think Brian Helgeland was too fearful to tell this story. Your sympathy with Jackie during those moments makes his triumph all the better. The film even takes the time to show the audience how racism is taught so quickly to the younger generations, and how it can be stopped. Once again the movie is a profound lesson in understanding the human element.
The performances in this film were far better than what I expected. First and foremost, Chadwick Boseman was visually a perfect choice for Jackie Robinson, and frankly you can level that comment across the board to all the major characters. Boseman’s portrayal of Robinson was a nice balance between raw emotion and an ability to keep it at bay. I thought he seemed genuine and conveyed the proper sense of pressure that lay on his shoulders. Harrison Ford hasn’t had a meaty enough role to sink his teeth into in quite a while, this was his chance, and he nailed it. Nicole Beharie did a wonderful job being an equal to Boseman’s Robinson. Never seeming forced or weak, she exemplified the strength needed for this historical moment. The last character I will mention specifically was Alan Tudyk’s Ben Chapman. While not on screen a lot in the film, his impact was tremendous. Chapman was such a vile human being in this film (and I am sure in life) that he might make Stephen from Django Unchained blush. Seeing other work by Tudyk made this performance all the more impressive. For a moment in time, I truly hated Alan Tudyk and that says a lot.
In conclusion, take your mom, wife, kids, grandparents, or anybody else to see this movie. Its an important black film, an important American film, and just a plain old important film. While not everyone will understand fully Robinson’s real life experiences, the cast of 42 will make you sympathize. Go see a true telling of an American legend.
Look for Black on Black Cinema's in depth podcast review this upcoming Monday.
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