“42” vs “The Jackie Robinson Story”

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Oh, this isn’t really a competition (42 vs. The Jackie Robinson Story). That would be like trying to suss out the outcome of an exhibition game between the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers and the latter day Los Angeles team. It’s the same game, but a little bit of apples and oranges. The rules are different.

I discovered a DVD of  the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story in the 99 cent bin of an odd lot many years ago and watched it with my kids. It’s an awkward, clunky old  Studebaker of a movie, but also an interesting specimen for all sorts of reasons.

Firstly, it stars Jackie Robinson as himself (much as Muhammad Ali would later do in his own bio-pic The Greatest, and Evel Knievel would do in Viva Knievel). This is an undeniably weird sub-genre: reality re-lived and bowdlerized. It must be an especially surreal trip for the guy who gets to star in it. In fact, maybe that’s what heaven is. As you can imagine, Robinson is no great thespian, even playing himself, else there might have been subsequent starring roles. On the other hand O.J. Simpson couldn’t act a lick, nor many other athletes I could name, and they just kept working. Maybe Robinson just preferred to keep doing what he did best.

Secondly, apart from race movies (low budget films that were made by and for black audiences in the classic studio area), it is rare to see a movie in which the central characters are black. Not only is Robinson at the center, but Ruby Dee plays his wife, and beloved veteran Louise Beavers (Beulah) played his mother.

The first five minutes of 42 gives an excellent summation of why those facts are important; movies weren’t much ahead of baseball in the integration department. (Some, but they had a ways to go. And interestingly, baseball, which based its business decisions strictly on skill, rapidly passed Hollywood in the fairness and equity department).

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At any rate, I can’t rave enough about 42, so you’d better see it in theatres whilst you still can (I tend to get to movies late in the game). I think it’s the best baseball bio-pic I’ve ever seen, although it’s hard not to beat rickety old clinkers like The Pride of the Yankees. (OK, apparently it IS a competition).

What I especially liked about it was the way it presented this tricky story with clarity, and without apology. I am a sucker for didactic message films, but only when they hit the target, which is rarely. Usually they are dumbed down WAY too much (I’m looking at YOU, Ron Howard). Or, they are so terrified at actually depicting the ugly thing they’ve presumably chosen to depict that all power is sapped from it because it doesn’t take place on planet earth. Television is the worst offender, but most films are nearly as bad in this respect. The Duchess and I watched Blazing Saddles the other night. I have a long list of problems with that film, but one of the many of them is the palpable querulousness and terror with which most of the actors in the movie utter the N word. If you are depicting a racist, your job is to depict a racist. If discomfort is flowing through your pores as flop sweat and flying right out of the movie screen onto the faces of the audience, you’re not doing a very good job of telling us why this is a BAD thing that must be eliminated from the face of the earth.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland (who is a priori excellent for having been born in Rhode Island, but who also wrote L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, et al) does an amazing job of conjuring the time period: the art direction and costuming sort of blew my mind. It seemed extremely accurate, way in advance of most Hollywood attempts at period pictures. Part and parcel of the historical world he builds is creating that fabric of racism, that permeates every nook and corner of society and nearly everyone within it. You need to do that in order to show what Robinson (Chadwick Bosemanwas up against — a social situation not unlike Nazi Germany in many important ways. It’s chilling to look at the world through Robinson’s eyes. The situation was worst in the South, but not exclusive to it. The first town to attempt to bar the newly integrated Brooklyn Dodgers from playing in their stadium was…Philadelphia.

The worst monster in the film is Ben Chapman, manager of the Pittsburg Pirates, a performance all the more powerful because it’s played by beloved character actor, the usually funny and cuddly Alan Tudyk (Firefly). His character relishes every foul, reprehensible thing that comes out of his mouth as he tries to get a rise out of Robinson on the field. But as Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey says about the character: “He’s doin’ us a favor. [He’ll bring us] sympathy.” He could well be talking about the film itself. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, the Bible-spouting Methodist Rickey (perhaps treated a bit hagiographically here), while perhaps propelled into his risky decision to hire Robinson by Christian motives, is also clear that on some level it’s about money: “Not black nor white, but green”.

It is interesting to see Ford acknowledge his age and play a character part. He’s great in it. I was especially excited to see Law and Order SVU’s Christopher Meloni as Leo Derocher, and he is flipping awesome. Unfortunately, his character drops out of the story early on; I had been looking forward to spending the full two hours with him. John C. McGinley is hilarious as legendary announcer Red Barber, the guy who incidentally named the Brooklyn Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, whom I presented through my American Vaudeville Theatre.

While I think 42 is probably the best baseball movie I’ve ever seen (including Barry Levenson’s very strange The Natural), I’m still not sure Helgeland has knocked it out of the park. It’s hard to put my finger on, but, though Boseman does a fine, moving job of enacting Robinson’s story, he doesn’t have the star quality that would sell Robinson’s dimensions as a hero. This may be Helgeland’s intent…Robinson was taciturn, didn’t talk a lot. And there is the “he’s-just-a-man-that’s-what-makes-it-so-extraordinary” approach. But it seems to me that this isn’t really that kind of picture. Make no mistake. This is a Hollywood movie, a popcorn movie. Though it’s about an important subject, the very grammar of it demands a star at the heart of it. (Spielberg often makes the same mistake when he tries to do his own serious dramas. He doesn’t have the language at his fingertips to make something “real”; he shouldn’t try). Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel practically sets the screen on fire. Andre Holland, as his sportswriter “Boswell” Wendell Smith also leaves a lasting impression. But, despite the fact that #42 made me cry 4.2 times over the course of the picture, I can scarcely conjure him in my mind. Nothing to do with skill, just a question of chemistry.

NOW, I was walking around Tribeca a while back and I saw a sign promising that on that site (75 Varick Street to be exact) next year there would be a new Jackie Robinson Museum*. And I was kind of like, “Yeah, that’s kind of cool. But don’t we have too many museums already? And, sure he was courageous in what he did on this sports team, but that’s just sports, isn’t it?” (I’m not too interested in sports). But of course it’s about way more than that. It’s about (as happens in the movie) millions of kids of all colors admiring and emulating a black man, changing their attitudes, and growing up to change the institutional injustices. Anyway, that’s why I’m a sucker for movies like 42, when they’re done well. I didn’t see something and now I saw it. It was powerful enough for me to even concede the cultural importance of sports.

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