Thursday, September 3, 2020

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: 42

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who dedicate this one to Chadwick Boseman. Thank you for your work.

Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: This past Friday, Major League Baseball observed its annual Jackie Robinson Day. Usually scheduled for April 15th of each year, the celebration was moved to August 28th to accommodate the delayed and shortened season. It’s typically a solemn occasion in its own right, but this Jackie Robinson Day was made all the more profound by the tragic passing of actor, producer, playwright, and all-around superhero, Chadwick Boseman. Adam and I originally planned to cover 2008’s Sugar this week, but he correctly suggested that we instead talk about Brian Helgeland’s 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic, 42.

1945. Brooklyn. Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has decided to break Major League Baseball’s long-honored color barrier by recruiting a black player from the Negro Leagues. It’s decided that the player will be Kansas City Monarchs shortstop Jackie Robinson (Boseman), a WWII veteran, UCLA graduate, and noted advocate for civil rights. Rickey and Robinson both know that Baseball will resist this new development, but the old man encourages his new star to keep his head down, turn the other cheek, and show the world why he’s worthy of the job. It’s easier said than done, of course, and Robinson will rely on his wife, Rae (Nicole Beharie), sports writer Wendell Smith (AndrĂ© Holland), Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), and his fans in the bleachers for support in this historic season.

This was my first viewing of 42 since the theater, and while my opinion is obviously affected by Boseman’s passing (not to mention a continued search for Good Things in quarantine), I’m happy to say it’s one of the better biopics in recent memory. A good biopic is hard. It requires filmmakers to balance drama with historical accuracy in a way that doesn’t dilute either to the point where the entire project loses its integrity. Writer/director Helgeland (of L.A. Confidential and my beloved A Knight’s Tale) pens an effective script that tells Robinson’s story with just the right levels of sweet and sour. It doesn’t put on airs about Rickey’s business ambition (“Money isn’t black or white; it’s green”), but it does allow him to be a mentor. It doesn’t make Robinson into a larger-than-life, overly-saccharine God figure, but it does illustrate his intelligence, diligence, and charm. Most importantly, it’s a baseball movie that’s romantic about baseball. And how can you not be romantic about baseball?

Adam, what did you think of 42?
Adam: This most recent viewing of 42 was also my first since seeing it in theaters several years ago. I was more critical of the movie back then. I thought 42 was quite good on this viewing, although I’ll admit it was largely due to me being primed to appreciate it more in honor of Chadwick Boseman. He’s excellent in the movie and a perfect choice to play Jackie Robinson. If there’s one thing Chadwick Boseman excelled at, it was portraying strong characters -- men with moral fortitude who could withstand adversity. I was talking about Boseman with family this past weekend and it’s pretty amazing the legacy he built on screen in just seven years, beginning with 42. Boseman had not only a career of entertainment but one of importance by portraying the likes of Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall on screen and introducing their stories to younger moviegoers. And, of course, his work in Black Panther (and that film in general) was immediately iconic and long overdue, presenting black representation in superhero stories for mass general audiences. The fact that he worked so much for four years while fighting cancer is all the more remarkable. He was as strong as the men he played on screen and we were lucky to have him as moviegoers for the time that we did. He will be greatly missed but never forgotten.

Going back to 42 specifically, we have to talk about the supporting performance by Harrison Ford. It’s under-the-radar a bit in terms of his filmography but also completely great. It might be because of the makeup, but he does this thing where he disappears into the character but also elevates it because of the (positive) baggage of casting Harrison Ford in the role of Branch Rickey. 42 isn’t a slog, but it’s a movie that comes to life even more in Harrison Ford’s scenes. Just like he did in The Call of the Wild from earlier this year, he brought a spark to the role which is somewhat unexpected because this was during a period where his performances were variable in how much he seemed interested. I also love that Lucas Black (aka Drift King) is in 42 as #Family to Jackie Robinson. Can we just pause for a second and appreciate Lucas Black? If I were a filmmaker, I would cast Lucas Black in every movie. He’d be my John Ratzenberger. His voice is so distinct that it’s impossible to think of him as anyone but Lucas Black and I mean that in a good way.

Rob: I’ve never seen a Harrison Ford performance where I quite forget it’s Harrison Ford, but I come pretty damn close in 42. He’s in this “agitated” mode that’s so different from the “grump” he employed in K19: The Widowmaker, for example. There’s more energy. He’s a rabble rouser. I love that shot of Boseman coming out of the tunnel where you see Ford on the field leaning on the baseball bat. Lucas Black is also really fun as Pee Wee Reese. He does the “reformed white man” thing without playing it too big. I liked his whole bit where he encourages Jackie to shower with him.
Adam: I credit 42 for not sanitizing the overt racism Jackie Robinson faced in his rookie season. There’s a long sequence of Alan Tudyk (playing the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies...sorry Rob) spewing racial epithets repeatedly at Jackie Robinson and it’s queasy to watch, let alone imagine someone experiencing first-hand. There’s a moment during this sequence that I think is absolutely brilliant. Before the game starts it shows a father and son at the game having a seemingly normal, wholesome afternoon watching baseball from the stands. Then when Jackie Robinson takes the field, the father starts yelling racist slurs. After noticing what his father’s doing, the son tentatively starts to yell racial slurs too. It’s such a smart scene because it makes a giant point in less than a minute of screentime. It also underlines Branch Rickey’s mission to have Jackie Robinson save the soul of baseball from itself.

Rob: The moment with the kid in the bleachers that you mentioned is really great, and I love the way it juxtaposes with the young Ed Charles subplot. Two kids who love baseball with very different life experiences and facing very different paths forward. And yes, considering the fact that we spent an entire column beating up on the White Sox for Eight Men Out, we have to stop and talk about 42’s portrayal -- its infuriatingly accurate portrayal -- of manager Ben Chapman and the Philadelphia Phillies. The on-field incident between Chapman and Robinson was real, and it was probably a lot worse than depicted in the film. Not only was Chapman a screaming racist, but the Phillies were the last team in the National League to field an African American player (Shortstop John Kennedy in 1957) -- ten years after the Robinson incident. It sucks. It’s embarrassing. But it only illustrates the importance of Jackie Robinson Day and that of protests across the sports world, including the most recent ones recognizing Jacob Blake. No matter what your uncle yells on Facebook, sports is and will always be political.

I sought out a few 42 reviews by black writers after I finished my viewing, and one of them compellingly argues that the Robinson roles (Mr. and Mrs.) are underwritten in a way that makes them dramatically inert; essentially, they exist as symbols that allow the characters around them to have arcs without having any of their own. It’s a well-written piece about our tendency to lionize historical figures to the point that they stop being interesting, and I don’t disagree with its thesis, but I also feel that 42 is about Baseball’s change and growth as much as it is Robinson’s experience. The racism wouldn’t be new to the Robinsons. They’d have lived with it every day of their lives, whereas Baseball was going to have to see life through their eyes if it was going to change. White players had to see and react to Jackie existing and enduring in that space. In that capacity, the Robinsons ARE symbols worthy of an audience’s reverence. That said, I’d love to see a 42 made by a black filmmaker or one interested in giving its leads a bit more interiority.

Adam: If Horror Noire taught me anything, it’s to not be offended if it’s suggested I’m missing the point or uninformed when it comes to depictions unlike my own on film. It’s more important to be quiet and learn, even if my first inclination is to disagree. Each perspective has value and is most often meant with the best intentions, but the personal experience should have equal or greater weight. It’s the conversation that’s important and not one person being right or wrong. I agree with the writer who reviewed 42 and felt Jackie Robinson was underwritten. I say that because a figure of his stature could warrant the treatment Spike Lee gave Malcolm X in his biopic. That said, I think the way Robinson is portrayed and written in 42 is completely respectful and done with good intent even if it’s not super ambitious.

I don’t think Brian Helgeland would be able to make this movie in 2020, which I’m conflicted about. Anybody should be able to make anything but I think a black filmmaker (or writer) would probably make more sense for a Jackie Robinson biopic. I felt the same way with Michael Mann’s Ali. It’s a delicate subject.
Rob: It is. The one other criteria we judge these movies on is the “baseball” of it all, and I thought 42 was pretty good in that regard. Boseman and the on-field team have realistic energy, and Helgeland stages the scenes of Jackie stealing multiple bases really well.

Adam: I agree. The baseball sequences were much more convincing than in most baseball films we’ve reviewed. It might have happened more in the past, but I find it distracting how steals crazy directors/writers are when in the game today it happens about as often as a quality start. In movies, they act like there’s three stolen bases every inning.

Rob: Jackie Robinson steals bases with the same ferocity that Phillies relievers blow leads. So it’s definitely Mark On for 42. Reserved Seating is taking a short break, but we’ll be back later in September with Finding Nemo. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. as Paul Calvert pointed out in the last weekend open thread, there's an interesting discussion about the movie on Black Men Can't Jump ep116 (october 10, 2017) and how problematic the movie is from a black man viewpoint. they actually mention that Spike Lee was at one point set to direct a movie about Robinson

    1. That’s the next podcast I’m catching up with! I’m anxious to hear their thoughts.

    2. I agree about the conflict that we have reached an apex where BIPOC should be the point people on BIPOC stories.... perhaps it will eventually bring us some balance. 42 is one of those films I need to revisit with 'new eyes.'