Yesterday, Chadwick Boseman died at the far-too-young age of 43. He’d apparently been fighting colon cancer for years in stoic silence, and continued to work through it. His three best known roles are as T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, a.k.a. the Black Panther in four Marvel Cinematic Universe films; James Brown in Get On Up; and Jackie Robinson in 42. One of the things that made him so impressive is that all three of those roles are ones where he had to inhabit someone already established, whether in real life or in decades of fiction (Black Panther was created in 1965 and has been a regular presence in Marvel’s comic books ever since). I still haven’t seen Get On Up. I reviewed his MCU films as part of the great superhero movie rewatch on Tor.com and you can read what I said about Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame on that site. Below is the blog entry I wrote about 42 in June 2013.
Wrenn and I have been wanting to see 42 since it opened in April, and we finally got to it yesterday. It is not a great movie, but it’s a good one that we both enjoyed very much.
A lot of why it did work was the excellent acting. Chadwick Boseman played Jackie Robinson as a talented athlete who was frustrated by the racism he had to deal with, but who knew that he couldn’t fight back. Thankfully, the movie didn’t try to portray him as some kind of saint who nobly stood up to the racists, but as a person who struggled with the shit he had thrown at him all the time.
Harrison Ford gives one of the best performances of his career as Branch Rickey. First off, it’s a great impersonation of Rickey (check the video in this post as an example of the real Rickey), as he utterly loses himself in the personality of the guy they called “Mahatma.” And I especially like that Rickey is up-front about the prime motivation for putting Robinson (and other black players) on his team: they’re good athletes, they’ll help him win, and winning means money.
The heart of the movie, though, is the relationship between Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel, played beautifully by Nicole Beharie. Their love is real and palpable, and you can tell that Rae is a big part of what enabled Jackie to endure what he endured.
Note should also be made of some excellent supporting roles: Christopher Meloni as the ever-blunt-and-obnoxious Leo Durocher; a magnificent (and reportedly very difficult for the actor) turn by Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, the ultra-racist manager of the Phillies; a quiet but effective Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese; and most especially John C. McGinley doing a letter-perfect Red Barber. It’s also amusing to see a couple of old favorites in small roles: Max Gail (best known as Wojo on Barney Miller) as Durocher’s replacement as Dodgers manager Burt Shotton and Peter Jurasik (Londo on Babylon 5, though to me he’ll always be Sid the Squid on Hill Street Blues) as a racist hotel manager in Philadelphia.
The movie is far from perfect. While it gets lots of details right — indeed, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen at accurately re-creating the acts of people playing baseball (the only flaw, e.g., in the otherwise-great Bull Durham) — there are some annoying changes that seem to just be there to Hollywoodize a story that doesn’t need it. For starters, writer/director Brian Helgeland totally made up the scene where Robinson gets fed up with Chapman’s abuse and goes to the runway to scream and destroy a bat. It was probably intended to make Robinson look more human, but it just feels constructed. Robinson did not hit a homer in a game to give the Dodgers a pennant-clinching victory. He hit a homer against Fritz Ostermueller, yes, but the Dodgers lost that lead later only to come back to win, and actually clinched later in the same series. In an earlier scene, Ostermueller hits Robinson in the head prompting a bench-clearing brawl when in reality Ostermueller (who was left-handed, not right-handed) hit him in the wrist and there was no brawl.
It’s not like there was a shortage of real-life incidents to choose from, many of which the movie did well with, including the stuff with Chapman (all of which was completely accurate, down to the photo op of them holding a bat in which Chapman looks nauseated), the need to leave Sanford, Florida in the middle of the night to avoid a lynch mob of locals, and Enos Slaughter spiking Robinson on his calf.
Speaking of which, when Robinson’s getting his calf stitched up there’s another constructed scene, where Rickey has to give the “real” reason why he gave Robinson the chance — because we can’t have our Hollywood heroes only being concerned with money, can we? But Rickey was a visionary who looked for nontraditional solutions to making his teams better. The minor-league farm system as we know it today was pioneered by Rickey, and it was for the same reason why he broke the color barrier: it made his team better.
And finally, the music is just awful. Just the most clichéd swelling of strings and more yanking than pulling on heartstrings, like composer Mark Isham didn’t trust the audience to know how to respond to the drama unfolding. It’s the worst kind of see-Spot-run score that just makes me want to throw things, an intrusive annoying score.
A lot of things were simplified, but one can excuse that for the need to tell a story in a couple hours. Overall, it was a good movie, one I recommend for baseball fans and people who want to know the story of an American hero.