There is a moment in 42, the new biopic about Jackie Robinson, that I had always believed to be true. It takes place during Robinson’s rookie season in 1947 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, just across the Mason-Dixon line from Kentucky, the home state of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ All-Star shortstop and Kentucky native Pee Wee Reese. Early in a contest between the Dodgers and Reds, Robinson became the subject of boos and racist taunts from fans. To silence Robinson’s critics, Reese reportedly walked over to his teammate and put his hand on Robinson’s shoulder, communicating clearly that he would stand with his teammate. It’s a powerful gesture, a statement of support from one ballplayer to another in the face of almost universal opposition, given that many of Robinson’s teammates even opposed his presence on the team. Unfortunately for historians of the game and for those of us seeking a little extra humanity in the face of violence, it’s also most likely not true. But given the emotional punch of such a scene–Robinson is finally embraced in public by his team’s leader–it provides a nice bit of drama for the film. But it also illustrates the difficulty of making a biographical film about the one major league baseball player who has moved beyond fame into something closer to canonization.
Wesley Morris’s review of 42 for Grantland captures some of these complications way better than I could, describing the dramatic challenges of depicting a character (or characters, if you count Robinson’s ever patient and supportive wife, Rachel, played by Nicole Beharie) who doesn’t change over the course of the film. Instead, Robinson must, in some sense, remain steady, unchanging, even when faced with a barrage of racist insults and abuse, as he was by Phillies manager Ben Chapman. He must, in some sense, remain virtually perfect. As Morris implies, Robinson’s story–and I cannot deny his bravery–essentially places him in “bubble wrap,” making it difficult to view the story with anything other than reverence. It’s possible that we don’t have enough historical distance from the events in 42, especially given that Major League Baseball continues to worry about reaching out to African-American audiences, but I think it’s also possible that Robinson’s story, like so many others, is caught in the process of mythmaking that is so central to the history of baseball. Even when we recognize the faults of some of the great early players–Cobb’s racism and violent anger, Ruth’s drunkenness, the gambling scandals–we still have so many stories that define players via heroic narratives.
42 seems somewhat conscious of this problem, and as a result, places near its center the writer who covered Robinson and traveled with him early in his career, Wendell Smith. But rather than reflecting on Smith’s role in shaping Robinson’s story, Smith becomes Robinson’s driver and faithful assistant. In many ways, the film’s most vivid character was actually the Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey (played by a scowling and growling Harrison Ford), a move that seems to place Robinson somewhat on the margins. That said, the film gives us some small measure of Robinson’s heroism and the challenges he faced during his early career. It also provides a pretty vivid sense of the speed of baseball in a way that many sports movies fail to do. 42 shows Jackie dancing on the base paths, challenging pitchers with his tremendous quickness. We get a clear sense of Robinson’s amazing reflexes in the field and the excitement he generated for the many fans who came to idolize him. I’m not suggesting that we would have been better served by a movie that showed Robinson as flawed. And there is little question that his story should be remembered. But I would have valued a film that could have provided us with a better sense of the challenges that Robinson faced and the role of people like Wendell Smith in making Robinson’s story possible in the first place.