It had been ages since I had seen "The Jackie Robinson Story", filmed in 1950 and starring Robinson as himself, and recalled practically none of the 'autobiopic' when I decided to watch it again for comparison with "42". Before going to the Renaissance Grand Lake where "42" is playing. My primary interest was to see how white racism in America would be portrayed on the silver screen either in truth-telling or filmmaking from one era to the next.
The voice over starts by telling us that "this is the story of a boy with a dream. But more than that it is the story of an American boy and a dream that's truly American". We see a black boy in the foreground walking down the street away from us, deep cuffs in his jeans, camera undoubtedly on a trolly to keep pace. It is 1928. An identical scene ends the film but this time the boy's image is paled with a projection of the Statue of Liberty superimposed.
The action begins with a bunch of young boys heading out onto a field to field balls being batted to them by two white men. Needless to say we see flashes of Jackie's budding talents that will lead him to prowess in basketball, football, track, and baseball, the latter his strongest suit, although the others are nowhere near shabby. "Hit me one, mister..." he says to the batter. "What do you want?" "Ground it. Line it. Anything", comes little Jackie's reply, and he fields three different balls—with bare hands. All the other kids, with mits, are white. It is presumably Cairo, Georgia. It's as wholesome a scene as any you would find in "Lassie".
The flipping of the pages of a calendar indicates leaps in the passage of time. Before we know it, the action has progressed to 1937, stopping along the way for cameo-like autobiographic sub-actions: playing all four sports for the UCLA Bruins; joining up with Uncle Sam who sends him a draft notice; getting scouted by the Black Panthers Negro team and playing for them for a while. Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodgers president, then enters the picture. This is pretty much where "42" starts. As David Germaine writes in his blog review, ""42" plays out safely and methodically, centering on the two most critical years in his rise to the majors and letting that time unfold with slow, sturdy momentum".
I'm in agreement with film critic Marshall Fine when he says of "42" that "Helgeland doesn't dwell on the endless barrage of racist bile that Robinson (and his wife) endured, but he doesn't shy from it either", and he credits this restraint with lending more meaning and more power to Robinson's achievements. In the "Jackie Robinson Story", white racist attitudes are depicted in Robinson being shunned by the other players when he shows up for spring practice with the Montreal hopefuls. He moves from group to group—always with a gorgeous smile—when they pretend not to see him there, glove extended, waiting for a chance to be a team member. In another scene, the entire team is refused hotel accommodations when on the road, and half the team signs a petition at some point saying they want him gone.
"Nigger" is uttered one time throughout the entire movie, the slur being replaced by "shine" or "black" on occasion (make no mistake, African Americans did not take lightly to being called "black"; it was an insult in those days). The manager of the Phillies' was shown heckling Robinson with a shoe shine bag from his dugout which, of course, he had to go through the trouble of finding in the first place. And one of the Philly players jeered at him by biting wide and nasty into a large slice of watermelon, while two fans—considerably older than teenagers—pass a black kitten with a rope around his neck over the wall and onto the bench near Robinson. Is this why when Ruby Dee who plays Jackie's wife says that she is afraid to go out walking by herself because of what she has overheard certain white men saying, her hostess responds, "Oh they talk big but they don't really mean it"? Really? In Florida, the out-Lynching-est state in the union? I'm wondering if director William Joseph Heineman truly meant that as some form of dramatic understatement.
On the other hand, "nigger" is repeated so many times in "42" that it finally manages to take on the mammoth-like racist proportions intended. Here, the Phillies' manager—racism incarnate (sorry but they picked the right face to play the part!)—repeatedly shouts the slur to Robinson each time he's at bat, varying only slightly the monotonous jeering, "Hey, nigger, nigger, nigger", "go home nigger", "you don't belong here nigger", "this is a white man's game, nigger". This is more like it, the hatred and venom that was prevalent during those years preceding the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in 1954. And how many of us know that baseball became a segregated sport in 1889?
It is not unexpected that racism in an American-made film in 1950 would whitewash racism to little more than mild irritation and the crankiness of spoiled children. It wouldn't be American to tarnish the reality of living in America if you look a certain way. I have a different understanding of what the patrons and employees in the roadside diner might have really said to Robinson when he walked in looking for food and a place to wash up for his black teammates. Even today behind closed doors the word "nigger" is used far more often than people are willing to admit.
It might be understandable that "The Jackie Robinson Story" portrayed Robinson as mild-tempered and easy-going. Perhaps he was. But would he have also internalized the ugliness of racial hatred so that we have no sense of his inner turmoil? He comes off almost as passive, a step above the happy-go-lucky Negro. In "42", Robinson, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, is self-possessed and almost edgy, at least until he can't take it any more and explodes just inside the stadium tunnel, breaking and shredding his bat in multiple swings against the concrete walls. It is a poignant moment that we all feel intensely. The racism in "42" is much more realistically depicted. Yet, as Zaki Hasan, who finds "42" "unexceptional" points out in his review, "Other than a few cursory nods...we don't get those moments of doubt, of fear, of panic as the full import of what he was attempting dawns on him".
When I was a child, my dad and his brothers used to play ball when we would go on picnics.
One uncle, I'm given to understand, even played in a Negro Minor League prior to marriage.
The fact is they were talented athletes too and when up at bat they would hit the ball farther than any of the other men there. It would sail long long long long long... And we the kids would stare in awe, mouths open, as an inexplicable sense of pride swept through us. Imagine what black people of all ages must have felt when they saw Jackie Robinson playing on the field with white men and rising to the top as the absolute best among them.
Jonathan Kim writes of "42"in his Rethink Review, "There's something beautiful about watching black fans watch Robinson, so filled with hope and pride as they hang on his every move and are inspired by something they never thought they'd see in their lifetimes". Which is exactly what I experienced when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008. Whatever anyone else might have felt, I cried like a baby because I thought I would never see it in my lifetime.
One cannot explain that kind of joy, pride or wonderment.