On Friday 42, the big-screen treatment of Jackie Robinson starring Chadwick Boseman as the player who integrated Major League Baseball and Branch Rickey as the man who gave him the contract to do it, hits theaters. Unfortunately, what could have been a nuanced and complex exploration of racism and the role of sports in progressive movements and American life at large is a cliched, hackneyed mess that exists more to lionize Branch Rickey than to explore the real journey to desegregating America’s game. ThinkProgress sports columnist Travis Waldron and I saw 42 together, and discuss the problems with the movie’s treatment of history—as well as with its acting and writing—here:
On Wednesday, you and I headed out to see 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic that might be better titled The Oracular Pronouncements Of The Sainted Branch Rickey. I think we both walked out of the theater thinking that it was a terrible movie: there’s no human moment the script can’t resist immediately quashing with cliched oratory, and with a few exceptions, it seems to have some real anxieties about portraying the uglier side of racism.
I want to talk about all of those things, but I thought we should start with the one thing the movie got right: the economics of bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. “New York is full of Negro baseball fans,” Rickey (Harrison Ford, overacting so dramatically I’m amazed he isn’t sponsored by the ham council) tells his assistant Harold at the beginning of the movie. “Dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green.” When a gas station attendant refuses Robinson access to the toilet when his Negro League team is on the Deep South, Robinson blackmails him into desegregating it by suggesting the team can buy its gas elsewhere. “Jack, is this about politics?” a white reporter asks him at his first spring training. “It’s about getting paid,” Jackie (Chadwick Boseman, who might have had a star turn with a better script) tells him. “I’m in the baseball business,” Rickey tells Robinson at a later point. “With you and the other black players I hope to bring up next year, I can build a team that can win the World Series. And a World Series means money.” Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (a fantastic Christopher Meloni) lectures his players, some of whom oppose the idea of playing with Robinson, “I’ll play an elephant if it’ll help us win…We’re playing for money, here. Winning is the only thing that matters.” Durocher himself is suspended from baseball when the Catholic Youth Organization threatens to boycott the league over his affair with a married actress. Even the racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman (a very strong Alan Tudyk) recognizes the economic imperatives, taunting Robinson at the plate “You’re here to get the nigger dollars for Rickey at the gate.”
That economic imperative story is interesting, and it’s important—and it’s a critical reminder that the decision to desegregate baseball wasn’t simply done out of the goodness of Branch Rickey’s heart. I actually wonder if that’s one of the reasons we haven’t seen an out player in professional sports, yet. Unlike with black players and black fans, who were visibly excluded from the game, and who represented a clear pool of both ticket dollars and playing talent that were shut out of sports, it’s not as if there are alternate gay leagues and alternate gay fan bases that are visible to mainstream sports and mainstream executives.
But it’s a story that pretty much gets smothered in sentiment. What did you think? I’m particularly curious what your reaction was to the way 42 presents how Robinson’s teammates came around to his presence on the club.