The week this movie was released, it was announced in the news that
Commissioner Bud Selig was going to create a diversity task-force to
look at the all-time low participation of African-Americans in Major
League Baseball. It was discovered that only 8 percent of the players
this season were African-American. The 8 percent is the lowest since the
Boston Red Sox became the final team to integrate blacks to its roster
in 1959. World Series champion, the San Francisco Giants opened the
season without any African-Americans. The rosters include plenty of
Hispanic faces, but very few blacks.
According to Tyler Kepner in an article for The New York Times, one reason for low numbers for blacks is the fact that colleges offer few, if any, scholarships for baseball. Blacks need those scholarships. Without scholarships, blacks instead turn to football and basketball. This throws into question the legacy of Jackie Robinson who was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball and who is credited for paving the way for more black players in this sport. It's sad that all that paving has been practically undone.
Aside from a couple of TV movies about the Negro Leagues and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) starring Jackie Robinson himself, there really hasn't been any film about racism in baseball, so 42 stands as an important document, one that's probably long overdue. I don't think it's as strong a document as other films dealing with racism in sport, such as Remember the Titans (2000) or Glory Road (2006). It adequately conveys the struggle Jackie Robinson would have experienced on and sometimes off the court, but writer-director Brian Helgeland (Mystic River and L. A. Confidential) doesn't tell this story from the perspective or sole point-of-view of Robinson.
Harrison Ford stars as Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s. He comes up with the idea to sign an African-American to the team, breaking an unwritten rule of segregation in the sport. Ford gives a good performance. He mostly looks like an older Indiana Jones or much closer to Sean Connery in The Last Crusade and affects an accent that's slightly comical at first but then accustoms itself half-way through.
The screenplay never really does enough to let the audience know who the players are beyond being either opposed to Jackie Robinson or not opposed. Those who were opposed included starting pitcher Kirby Higbe, played by Brad Beyer, and right fielder Dixie Walker, played by Ryan Merriman. Both Beyer and Merriman are two good, young, handsome TV actors. I wish they were given more to do, besides have sour faces upon watching Jackie's success or even presence on the field. For example, I wish they were given more lines of dialogue, more of their back stories.
Those who were not opposed included shortstop Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black, and pitcher Ralph Branca, played by Hamish Linklater. Helgeland did give a little more to Black to help him carve out more of a character, but that little more truly is just bread crumbs. Black was better used in Friday Night Lights (2004) as a teenage football player and even in Seven Days in Utopia (2011) as a pro-golfer. Black is perhaps trying to do a movie for every sport.
Another character not opposed to Jackie is player-manager Leo Durocher, played by Christopher Meloni. Meloni is a phenomenal actor. If you've seen his work in HBO's Oz or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, then you know Meloni is truly gifted and amazing, which is why he makes memorable his character here. The problem is that despite being probably the best thing about the movie, I almost wish he weren't. Meloni is so good that he draws attention away from things we should care about more. Meloni doesn't quite eclipse Ford, but he does eclipse Chadwick Boseman who plays Jackie Robinson.
First off, I watched The Jackie Robinson Story. While Boseman is a better actor than the actual Jackie Robinson, he certainly isn't better looking. Boseman played the real-life Floyd Little, the All-American running back at Syracuse University in the film The Express (2008), so obviously Boseman is in good shape. Yet, at the same age, Jackie Robinson was better built and had a far prettier face. Boseman does a good job of portraying Robinson's resolve and fortitude, but that often requires him to be silently stoic. Boseman does get a scene where he gets to breakdown but mainly he's stoic and that gets boring after a while.
In the film, Kirby organizes a petition to get rid of Jackie, but Leo finds out about it and delivers a great speech to stop them. It might have been historically inaccurate, but, in that moment, I wished Boseman would have delivered Leo's speech. I thought Meloni did a fantastic job spitting those words, but it would have simply been delicious to have Jackie assert himself or at least react to that knowledge. Jackie never even learns about the petition.
Another thing that bothered me was the repeated question put to Branch Rickey about why he decided to sign an African-American in the first place. In The Jackie Robinson Story, Rickey states early, clearly and upfront his reason. Throughout the course of 42, Rickey's reason for signing Jackie is not as firm. At first, it seems like he's doing it for just as a kind of social experiment. Secondly, it seems as if he's doing it because he's a reverse racist and thinks blacks are naturally better athletes, so having them will win him games and make him money. Thirdly, it seems like he's doing it just because he hates the unfair treatment of blacks.
Rickey's motivations could be either of the three or all at once. For that matter, Jackie's motivations could be either of the three or all at once. Helgeland never defines Jackie's reasons. I can forgive not making Rickey's motives clear, but not doing so for Jackie is some kind of failure. Not defining Jackie does nothing for Jackie's legacy and it makes what Bud Selig is doing 60 years later rather pointless.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for themes and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 8 mins.