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.

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