Monday, April 15, 2013

"I'll Give You the Guts": A Review of "42"

Today, April 15, is a historic day.  Yes, I know that it is Tax Day.  I completed my tax return back in February.  No, today is historic for another reason.  For on 15 April 1947, America changed.  Good got the drop on evil.  Belief took a shot at ignorance.  Faith leapt ahead of hatred.  Jackie Robinson came to bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  America would never be the same.  And on this issue, all I can say is thank God.

In 1947, two years following the end of World War II, minorities in America were still feeling the weight of racial oppression.  All different stripes of Americans had fought and died side by side in Europe, Africa and the South Pacific, yet they could not eat the same restaurants or drink from the same water fountains.  However that was going to change.  And the advent of this change did not come from a crowd gathered at a memorial in our nation’s capital; it came in an office in Brooklyn. 

This is the story that 42 wishes to tell.  It wishes to tell the story of how one old, cranky, white baseball man challenged one, young, black baseball player to help him change the world.  Sure Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) wanted to make money.  He knew people would pay to see a black man smack homeruns off of white pitchers and steal bases from white catchers.  Yet, deep down in his soul, Rickey was nursing a regret, a regret that he had not done more.  Thus he turns to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Bozeman), a young ballplayer full of personality and power to help right the wrongs caused by prejudice and ignorance.

This film is too good to spoil by telling you much more about it.  Also, it is a historical biopic piece, which means there has been some polishing and tweaking.  Great care has been given to making this a great movie about a great man.  Heroes are heroes (Jackie, Branch Rickey, Pee Wee Reese, etc.) and villains are villains (Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a town sheriff in Florida, and a couple of Robinson’s teammates).  Yet if baseball ever had a saint, it was Jackie Robinson.  If you want the “box score” on Robinson’s life, I recommend the Wikipedia article, recently updated in honor of the film and the ongoing construction of the museum in Manhattan.  It is a sports film, yet it is not like Eight Men Out.  It is not simply a historical narrative of events and people and games played.  It is a sports film like We Are Marshall and Miracle are sports films.  It has a spiritual message for a broken world: When we believe in good, good will overcome evil.  And in this case, good overcomes evil by hitting a monstrous homerun!

Obviously, the racial tension is the thread that weaves the plot of this film.  I am an avid baseball fan, and I believe deeply in social justice.  My wife and I wanted to see this film, yet we questioned whether or not to take our children who are elementary-age to see it.  We have taught our children that racism is not only wrong but sinful.  Martin Luther King, Jr., is a name we hold in reverence.  (Ultimately, we took our son and left our daughter with my parents.)  Yes, there is some profanity and a little bit of drinking in this film.   The film does not spare famed manager Leo Durocher his public flaws of alcoholism and adultery.  And Harrison Ford smokes enough cigars to burn down Ebbets Field.  My concern was the constant use of racially-motivated derogatory language (you know that sad, offensive word).  Yet, the scene where Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (Ben Tudyk) lashes Robinson with a verbal barrage that could have broken even the hardest hard-core rapper proves to be the strongest teaching moment about the evils of racism that I have viewed in a film since Glory.  I agree with Alynda Wheat’s comments: “He insults the player in language so blisteringly foul, you may question whether to take your kids.  I say take them.  The film provides plenty of teachable moments: form the painful to the triumphant, lessons too many of us have forgotten or perhaps never knew.  And if the Robinson adoration begins to feel like a bit much, it’s okay.  Some things need to be glorified.”[1]  You will leave this film with a lump in your throat, a tear in your eyes and a burning desire in your heart.  And for that I say, thank you, Jackie.              

[1]Alynda Wheat, Review of 42, People 79 (22 April 2013): 41. 

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