Monthly Archives: May 2013

Critiquing and Teaching Films: A Review of 42

I finally got around to seeing the new Jackie Robinson film, 42, last week. Overall I enjoyed the movie and thought that they did a pretty good job of developing the characters and presenting an engaging story. Going into it I was curious how far the story would go. Most of the time we hear about Robinson breaking the color line and winning the Rookie of the Year award (now named the Jackie Robinson award), but the story usually ends with integration. He broke the color barrier, we are told. He won the ROY award. The Dodgers were a good team with him. But the narrative is less about those things as it is his initial entry into MLB. That’s not a bad thing, but it presents problems for movie making.

The film covers a rather short snippet of Robinson’s life. It begins with a few scenes of him playing with the Kansas City Monarchs and challenging racial norms on road trips and quickly progresses to his meetings with Branch Rickey and the Dodgers. From there, we see his wedding and first two spring trainings, one in Florida and one in Central America. These events show the racism of the South and professional baseball. Soon thereafter Robinson is called up to the majors to start the 1947 season. The film depicts an attempted player mutiny and lots of emphatically racist gestures during games including those by an opposing umpire and manager as well as an intentional spiking by an opponent. After the call up we follow Robinson throughout the 1947 season witnessing his frustrations, the calming support of his wife, and a satisfied and happy Rickey. The movie ends with Robinson hitting a homerun to clinch the 1947 National League pennant for the Dodgers.

The homerun ending was a bit abrupt and sappy with its Disney-esque music montage. For me, it returns to the issue of narrativization. I would have preferred it if the film showed the Dodgers lose the 1947 World Series offering that as a metaphor for how Robinson helped the Dodgers (and baseball) improve, but they had not yet reached the promise land. Indeed, the ending made no mention of Larry Doby or any of the other African American players who trickled into the Majors after 1947. Doby and some others were listed on a chalkboard earlier in the film, however, during a discussion of which player the Dodgers should get.

Watching the film as a sports fan and a historian of sports presents another layer of analysis. I’ll readily admit that I am not well versed in the historiography of baseball (that’s part of summer reading list), but I have read a couple of books on the Kansas City Monarch and visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum several times while growing up in KC. Before viewing the film I did a bit of homework and re-read a few passages of Janet Bruce’s The Kansas City Monarchs:  Champions of Black Baseball.  Bruce’s book is a short and easy-to-read account of the Monarchs but focuses on the team’s relationship with Negro Leagues. The team’s history is a nice parallel and exemplar of the larger story of black baseball.

With the help of Bruce’s book I was able to identify some small and fairly insignificant historical inaccuracies with the film. One example is that the movie often showed the integrated seating during games. The films also says that there were 400 players in baseball in 1947, and 399 were white. Although I haven’t seen the exact numbers and rosters, I find this difficult to believe. Native American and Latin American (particularly Cubans) players had been accepted into Major League Baseball much earlier than African Americans. According to Jeffrey Powers-Beck, Louis Sockalexis joined the Majors in 1897 and was followed by other prominent Native Americans such as John Myers, Charles Bender, Allie Reynolds, and Jim Thorpe. This is not to dispute the significance of Jackie Robinson, however. Black integration was a huge deal and Robinson had a much deeper impact on American than the Sockalexis. Another tedious example is from one of the early scenes depicting Robinson stealing bases in a Negro League game. The film shows an umpire at each base making the safe call. According to Bruce, however, most Negro League games only had two umpires.

Bruce also challenges many of the popular narratives that Branch Rickey “bought” Robinson for the sole purpose of integrating baseball. She points to two competing interpretations but doesn’t point to which one is correct. Both suggest that Robinson was signed by Rickey because he was trying to start a competing Negro League (the United States League) and Jackie would play for his team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. The USL never got off the ground, however, so Rickey was stuck with Robinson and a three-year contract. It remains unclear whether the USL was just a cover to mask Rickey’s original intentions or if its failure quickened the pace of integration. Regardless of which is true, the film mentions neither. Instead, the Negro Leagues are presented almost like informal barnstorming teams that Rickey scouted and selected the best players for tryouts.

The film’s portrayal of the Negro Leagues seems to accurately match Rickey’s. The Dodgers plucked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs without compensating the team and refused to acknowledge his prior contract because it was verbal. According to Bruce, Rickey believed “there is no Negro league as such as far as I am concerned” (112).

Despite these small inaccuracies, I think the film did a good job of presenting the history. Branch Rickey was presented as innovative baseball lifer who had clung to strict values. Based on my limited reading, I believe this to be fairly true. He did attended Ohio Wesleyan as the movie explains, and he worked to build the farm-system during his time with the St. Louis Cardinals. The most power aspect of the movie, of course, was its use of the N-word and overall depiction of racist attitudes.

There are a couple of particularly vivid scenes that bring the pervasiveness of these racial attitudes home. The most powerful is a moment between a father and son in the stands. We first see them talking about the Dodgers and the Reds making predictions on who will win, and other small talk. Then, Robinson takes the field and the father erupts with racial epithets. The son looks confused and sits there for a moment before following suit and hurling his own slurs. You get a feeling from the scene that the son sensed this was wrong and didn’t quite understand it, but followed along anyways because he respected and looked up to his father.

Although one of my friends described the movie as a Disney film with the n-word, I think that’s a little bit unfair. It is impossible to judge a big-budget Hollywood film by historical standards and not be disappointed. In fact, I think 42 accomplishes quite a bit within those restraints. It is very entertaining and has good character development that is largely grounded-in and true-to historical facts. Although I wanted a bit more, it did an adequate job a presenting a succinct narrative of Jackie Robinson’s first season integrating baseball. Likewise, through its use of the n-word and racism it helps provide an understanding of the courage and willpower Robinson displayed in integrating baseball as well as the pervasiveness of racism.

I think historic films, no matter how imperfect, are important. As scholars and teachers we owe it to our students to see them and critique them. It is important, however, to execute our critiques in the proper way. I think 42 is an entertaining and good movie. It introduces a lot of topics and ideas and sketches out the contours of Jackie Robinson’s integration story. As an American hero who almost everyone has heard of, it’s good to make the story entertaining and accessible to larger audiences. As teachers then, we can use the film as a baseline and an entry point into deeper discussions of race, sports, integration, etc. Our critiques should not serve to ridicule the film or Hollywood narratives of history but rather as opportunities to fill in the gaps. As I hope I have illustrated here, we can use the film to look deeper into a variety of related ideas and themes. One such idea that I mentioned earlier is the notion of “integration” and the differing types of “color lines” drawn by baseball and American society. Another might be the reaction to Robinson’s integration moment by society – both white and black. For me, historical films if used correctly can become excellent teaching points, and I think 42 does just that.

Rock ‘N’ Roll in 1950s: A Review of _All Shook Up_

Although Summer Break is only a few days old, I’ve already begun the arduous task of reading and re-reading books as well as studying for my preliminary exams this fall. I’m going to try to post reviews of some of the books periodically. This week I’m trying to get through a few fun and interesting titles to ease into it and give myself the illusion that I’m doing some pleasure reading. I spent most of today reading Glenn Altschuler’s All Shook Up: How Rock ‘N’ Roll Changed America. It’s a book I saw on several of my colleagues’ reading lists and appeals to the popular bend of both my research and major field.

What I enjoyed most about the book, besides it’s fascinating subject, was Altschuler’s ability to both complicate and add texture to the traditional rock ‘n’ roll narrative. The first half of the book focuses more on the music and musicians touching on subjects such as race and sexuality. The second half looks more at rock ‘n’ roll’s relationship to the music industry and economic forces driving cultural preferences among youth.

In his opening chapter, Altschuler traces the development of rock ‘n’ roll between 1945 and 1955 carefully noting that it is a “social construction not a musical conception”(23). This definition of rock ‘n’ roll frees him to focus a site of contestation, exploration, and, in some cases, amalgamation of differing styles, cultures, and social values.  The next three chapters focus on these contested areas by looking at race, sexuality, and generational differences.

In his discussion of race Altschuler complicates the traditional view that white covers did damage to black artists by noting that in some ways it helped boost them by giving them more airplay and publicity. Similarly, although frequently labeled as “black music” and the catalyst to new segregation laws, rock ‘n’ roll also helped to challenge stereotypes among youth. Despite the prevalence of unfair and shady contracts with African American artists, it also remained a tool of social mobility. He points out that artist of both races often fell victim to predatory labels searching for up-and-comers, although it was more common among blacks. This, of course, is not to downplay the real problems associated with white cooption of rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed, Altschuler continues to argue “rock ‘n’ roll remained a highly visible and contested arena for the struggle over racial identity, and cultural and economic empowerment in the United States” (35).

As with race, sexuality during was also influenced by rock ‘n’ roll during 1950s. Placing the rock ‘n’ roll’s emergence in the context of Alfred Kinsey’s reports on sexual behavior in men and women, Altschuler notes that sexuality was already a heated topic and the focal point of American anxiety. In some ways rock ‘n’ roll exacerbated those feelings with it salacious lyrics, gyrating dancers, and race mixing. At the same time, however, censorship helped allay those fears and pushed rock ‘n’ roll into safer spaces. Indeed, throughout much of his third chapter Altschuler suggests that rock ‘n’ roll became a tool of “containment and control” by allowing American youth to cut loose, dance, and redirecting their sexual tension. Figures like Pat Boone and Dick Clark developed squeaky-clean images and used this cache to publish popular books providing parents and youth advice on topics such as dating and clean living. Both Boone and Clark became safe rock ‘n’ roll symbols that redirected and toned down previously contentious to music to mainstream audiences.

If Clark and Boone made rock ‘n’ roll safe, popular artists, such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard, helped use the newfound safety to push the envelope beyond the strictures imposed by censors and TV networks. While their lyrics continued to be censored, in time the networks relaxed their policies for improved ratings and allowed them on live TV. So strong was the lure that Ed Sullivan, who originally boasted that he would never have Elvis on his show, eventually caved and scheduled for three appearances in 1956. Altschuler suggests that rock ‘n’ roll played an important formative role in foreshadowing the sexual revolution of the 1960s with artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley serving as key figures in loosening the grips of sexual containment.

In the next chapter, on generational difference, Altschuler again uses Boone and as figures, who sought to “enhance” rock ‘n’ roll’s image and alleviated fears about sexuality and race. Yet through the toning down and expanding of youthful products for adult consumption, the rock ‘n’ roll industry was handing over economic power to teens. Altschuler suggests that rock ‘n’ roll became a key tool in the marketing of products because had remarkable influence over their parents’ product selection and purchases. Added to that was the increased purchasing power of youth themselves in the postwar era. “The relationship between youth and the modern economy changed in the 1950s,” Altschuler writes, “with rock ‘n’ roll often as a leader” (129). Because of this, rock ‘n’ roll symbolized the teetering empire of adult authority in perhaps the largest generational conflict of all.

What was resulted was a battle for culture. The marketing and corporate take over and persuasion of youth culture and their preferences worried many. Investigators explored the rock ‘n’ roll industry seeking to expose a system controlled by corporations. A series of contentious debates followed focusing on licensing profits, corporate control and manipulation of demand, and payola. Spurned on by a battle between the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) over music licensing and royalties, and later a quiz show rigging scandal, Congress steadily became more involved. The brunt of their efforts fell on Alan Freed. Widely considered one of the father’s of rock ‘n’ roll, Freed was one of the most influential DJs. He was indicted on charges based on commercial bribes statutes and further investigated by the federal communication commission and the federal trade commission. The investigation ruined Freed’s life. He was quickly fired and found it difficult to find subsequent work. Likewise, he was investigated for tax evasion for failing to report the payola income. Dick Clark, who probably had more extensive connections and financial interests within the rock ‘n’ roll industry outside of his broadcasting gig, eluded investigators by dodging questions and relying on his good-guy image. After all, Clark helped sanitize rock ‘n’ roll while Freed help create it. These investigations hurt and the battle for cultural control rock ‘n’ roll but did not kill it.

Altschuler’s final chapter focuses on the period 1958-1963 and rock ‘n’ roll’s revival. The battle over corporate control hurt the industry, but so too did the decline and retirement of many of its major artists. Some of these artists voluntary existed the industry, but most were forced out through some sort of scandal, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. Rock ‘n’ roll continued to change and evolve through this period, however. Motown emerged as an important player as did the Beatles and other British bands who ushered in a new era of rock ‘n’ roll.

The book concludes with a concise essay on Bruce Springsteen as a complex but symbolic figure for rock ‘n’ roll’s transformation over the last quarter of the twentieth-century. Alschuler notes that rock ‘n’ roll continues to be a significant part of youth culture today and carries with it a large amount of influence. Yet, because both it and society have splintered, it is no longer the same unifying force that it once was.

All Shook Up presents an interesting and well-documented view of rock ‘n’ roll during the 1950s. Altschuler presents rock ‘n’ roll as a part of a series of social transformations and controversies at heart of American anxieties during the 1950s. Rock ‘n’ roll interfaced with their concerns and often foreshadowed changes over race, sexuality, consumerism, and corporate control. At the same time, however, rock ‘n’ roll was not all doom and gloom. While Altschuler presents rock ‘n’ roll was a site of negotiation and contestation for a variety of people, he does so without picking winners and losers. The text presents rock ‘n’ roll as a part of a moment actively being socially constructed but never complete. Perhaps this is the best way to understand the 1950s. A period of great anxiety and change regarding civil rights, sexuality, economics and consumerism that gave way to a new generation who did not live through the Depression or fight in the War. Rock ‘n’ roll is indeed a symbol of this generation as they sought to understand themselves and the world around them as well as redefine American in the postwar period.

Overall I really enjoyed the book. Although not present in this review, there were lot of details and anecdotes that I can see myself pulling out and using in lectures. Likewise, I enjoyed the way he used rock ‘n’ roll as a social construction rather than trying to define it as a specific genre. This worked well for him and added to his ability to bend the topic across various issues and controversies.

The book was not without problems though. I felt like the book went downhill in the second half. The chapter on generational difference seemed a bit narrowly focused on economics and consumerism without addressing racial and class differences.  The fifth chapter on the culture wars felt out of place and disconnected from the rest of the work. The ASCAP — BMI debates and the Alan Freed — Dick Clark contrast were interesting and showed government officials responding to controversy and concern, but seemed to abandon some of the earlier themes and could have used more context. Additionally, the final chapter on rock ‘n’ roll’s lull and survival felt more like a conclusion describing the decline of the careers of many of Alschuler’s main character and pointing to new era on the horizon.

The book is at its best when discussion individual and personalities, and providing specific examples of songs and lyrics that sparked controversy. While important, the discussion of more industry specific details slow down the narrative and detract from argument because they’re generally not contextualized with other industries or musical genres. To be sure, many of these criticism are a bit nit-picky  I’ve read a couple pop culture related “industry” histories and generally don’t find them as interesting. I do, however, recognize the difficulty in balancing chapters on government regulation and economics with the fascinating personalities and popular culture creations. And, perhaps, the contrast between the two makes them even more difficult to write.

You Can’t Just Blame It on the Moms

I wrote just over a month ago about the difficulty I was having tying together one of my research papers. The paper explored attempts to create an intercollegiate boxing team at Purdue during the late 1930s and 1940s. Although the Second World War loomed large, the paper is mostly a micro history of debates and activities at Purdue. The research was remarkably fun. There were so many little events that I kept finding in the student newspaper (my main source base) and the more I found the more questions there seemed to be. Because of this, I’ve still been thinking and rethinking through the paper.

Two of the things I struggled with the most while putting together the paper were finding a cohesive thesis and answering the all-important “so-what” question. The end of the semester deadline pressed me a bit to churn out, what I admitted to my advisor at the time I turned it in, an inadequate paper. He’s promised that in the next week or so we’ll sit down and talk it out (something I hadn’t really been able to do before turning it in because both our schedules). But even as I wait for that meeting, I’ve continued to think and am starting to come to a more unified thesis and some solid conclusions. Here are those conclusions.

On the surface the paper is nothing more than “cool story bro” scholarship. It tells the story of an NCAA sport that almost no one knew existed at a school that never offered it as a true varsity sport. Yet, what I am discovering is that Purdue’s unremarkable story — a story of high hopes and unfulfilled potential — is important. The two major works on NCAA boxing focus on the upper echelons of success. E. C. Wallenfeldt’s history of the NCAA Boxing Tournament, which lasted from 1932-1960, focuses exclusively on the creation of the sport at a national level by discussing its most successful boxers and teams. Likewise, Doug Moe’s Lords of the Ring tells the story of the University of Wisconsin boxing team. Wisconsin had the best NCAA boxing team in the sport’s short history and played a key role in its demise. Neither of these books shares the day-to-day, year-to-year struggles of a mediocre program. They fail to provide a full explanation as to why NCAA boxing never materialized across the country and look at the deeper roots of its failure.

As I’ve continued to think over the paper I wrote and the research I have in front of me, I think Purdue’s boxing history helps to tell this story. Boxing at Purdue was remarkably popular. The school fielded an intercollegiate club team in 1942 and 1943 that sent several team members to the NCAA tournament. During World War II, the club teamed with the Navy V-12 and Navy Electricians’ school to offer a series of “Smoker” events several times a year. These events attracted thousands of fans and eventually were broadcasted on local radio. But, after the war, competitive boxing essentially disappeared from the campus.

Although I’ve not been able to find conclusive evident to hint at an absolute or full explanation, it is clear that the departure of the Navy training schools hurt the sport. Particularly because in February 1945 Purdue Athletic Director, Guy “Red” Mackey, expressed support for intercollegiate boxing and hoped to establish a team. Mackey, however, was cautious in his support noting that the creation of a program was hingent on him finding the “right” man. He wanted a college man with no ties to seedier professional boxing. College boxing, as practiced by the top programs in the NCAA, had always been more of a gentleman’s sport that taught toughness and life-long-lessons. The source base makes clear that Mackey never found his man although one may wonder how hard he searched. Purdue had several excellent boxing coaches and interested students throughout the 1940s. College boxing itself was connected to military training from it inception. During the war the Navy and ASTP paid the salary of one of the boxing instructors. Many of the boxers were also connected to the Navy training schools on campus. Hiring a boxing instructor after the war, it would seem, proved more difficult.

While the push for college boxing at Purdue developed independently of the Navy, during the war it became almost in separable from the training schools. Boxing’s zenith at Purdue occurred during World War II. Unfortunately, the NCAA cancelled its boxing tournaments in 1944, ‘45, and ’46 providing little chance for Purdue to establish itself in collegiate circles. The close alliance between boxing and the Navy, in many ways, seems to have doomed the sport. As the war drew to a close and training schools vanished from university campuses, so too did the boxing instructors, and students they brought with them, who were working to establish the sport. Purdue lost all the momentum it had gained toward establishing intercollegiate boxing between 1940 and 1946.

So why is this failure important? First, it shines light on the delicate nature of boxing on college campuses well before 1960 and the sport’s demise. Second, it provides new insight into the relationship between the NCAA sport and the military during World War II. There’s been a lot of talk about football during World War II (in fact, my advisor just wrote a book about it), but others sport, especially boxing, were also important tools for training and morale. Next, I think the story of boxing at Purdue is a part of the larger narrative of NCAA boxing beyond the championship teams and NCAA tournaments. Purdue competed intercollegiate in 1942 and 1943 with schools in Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan. They tried to continue competing during 1944 but the difficulty in finding opponents and the cancellation of the NCAA boxing tournament prevented them. Although it offers only a brief snapshot of boxing, those two years provide a glimpse into the regional boxing culture and expands the purvey of college boxing beyond the teams who competed at the NCAAs year in and year out.

Perhaps in the end, this is still nothing more than a cool story about a bygone sport. Collegiate boxing didn’t survive at Purdue beyond the 1940s, but it didn’t survive at any of the big programs after 1960. Writing in Sports Illustrated in 1960 as the dominoes were falling and the end of NCAA boxing was in sight, Martin Kane suggested that “You Can Blame It On The Moms.” While he recognized it was more than just them to blame, his narrative didn’t explore the deeper roots of the problem. The story of high hopes and unfulfilled potential of Purdue boxing is one step towards exploring these deeper roots and provides further evidence that you can’t just blame it on the Moms.