“42,” History, and Race

I have to admit that I was a little nervous about how “42” would handle history when I entered the dollar-movie theater.  (Yes, I am cheap. And now you know why my reviews come so long after a film is released).

It’s too bad we don’t wear fedoras anymore, don’t you think?

Of course, the film did well with the material items:  three-fingered gloves, 47 Chevys, the metal grill doors in the airport, flannel uniforms and steel girders in the stadiums.  (There is that problem with the slope in Crosley Field, but we’ll let that pass).  The material items are the easiest part of history to get right in films, so I wasn’t too concerned about that part.

No, I was worried about how the filmmakers would handle race.   They did a fairly good job, in my estimation.

Let me explain my concern.  Have you seen that movie with heroes whom you root for on one side, and bad guys on the other, and there is a complicated and tense conflict between them, but the good guys win in the end?  It’s called Star Wars.  Or maybe it’s Spider-Man.  Or Rocky.  Or The Little Mermaid.  Or The Wizard of Oz. Or Independence Day.  Or Cinderella.  Or Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Well, I don’t know.  It’s one of those movies.  Or maybe one or two that I haven’t mentioned.

If you haven’t noticed, we Americans like films that fit into this simple narrative.  We, the viewers, naturally identify with the good guys (in the old cowboy movies they wore white hats, just to be sure you got it) and we cheer against the bad guys.  And then good wins out, and we all leave the theater feeling fine, especially since we were on the right side.

This can happens with films about race.  We want to put ourselves on the sides of those fighting racism.  We want those bad racists to lose out to freedom, justice and equality.  And when they do, we all leave the theater feeling fine, especially since we were on the right side.

But reality, human nature and race is much more complicated than that.  How do we know we would have been on the right side in 1947 or 1852 or 1666?  And can we really divide humanity into good people and bad people?

Mississippi Burning is among the worst films on this score.  The FBI agents are the heroes and we root for them because we, like all decent Americans at the time, were on the side of justice, right?   Just about every white southerner in the film, meanwhile, is a redneck racist.  With those ignorant accents.  And they’re ugly, too.  Boy I’m glad we’re not like them.

Usually, (and by “usually,” I mean “every time”) when a film that is “based on a true story” divides the good from the bad in such a clear-cut and simplistic way, the film is distorting history.  Exhibit A:  in real life, the FBI spent most of its resources investigating the “trouble-making” civil rights movement, not those who killed civil rights workers.

I was relieved, then, to see a somewhat more complex picture of race emerge in “42.”

Yes, the ugly racists are there – most notably the Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, whose racist taunting of Jackie Robinson had me squirming in my seat.  (There’s a little bit of the simplistic “feel good” motif here, as we all smile with gratification in the credits when we find that Chapman never managed in the majors again after that season.  Yeah, take that, you racists!)

But one of the fine qualities of “42” is that one gets a range of racial responses from the characters in the film.  Robinson’s minor league coach welcomes him, but expresses a disparaging attitude about the ability of “niggers” to play ball (an accurate historical characterization of the guy).  The players on the Dodgers were initially cold, but eventually displayed a range of different reactions, from outright opposition, to conflicted feelings, to gradual respect, to open support – another accurate characterization.

One of the best scenes occurs after Robinson has been on the Dodgers for several weeks and the team is about to play in Cincinnati for the first time.  Pee Wee Reese, who was from nearby Kentucky, comes to general manager Branch Rickey’s office because he has received a threatening letter for playing with Robinson.  Having never faced anything like this before, he wants Rickey to do something about it.  Rickey (whose crustiness is overdone by Harrison Ford — sorry, but his acting bugged me) then pulls out file after file after file of death threats that Jackie Robinson has been receiving all along.

The beauty of the scene is that we the audience, like Reese, are bothered by the idea he has received this threat; we feel the sting of racism.  But when it is revealed that Robinson has been receiving a constant barrage of threats, we realize that he has been living with something much, much worse for quite some time.  It is hard for those of us who are white to fully understand what the world looks like to blacks.  Through this scene we, like Reese, get just a slight glimpse of the sort of pressure that Robinson had to play under (though it was even worse than the film portrayed it:  Robinson also received death threats directed at his wife and threats to kidnap his infant son).

Reese began to see this.  And that is why, in one of the more memorable scenes in the film, as Robinson is jeered and taunted by the fans in Cincinnati, Reese walks over and very purposefully puts his arm around Robinson and talks with him in solidarity for a moment.  We empathize with Reese, who empathized with Robinson.

It’s a great scene.  And it didn’t happen.

Well, it sort of happened, just not in the dramatic fashion portrayed in the film.  I have not seen any historical evidence that Rickey pulled out the file of threatening letters to show Reese what Robinson had been enduring.  That seems to be a dramatic invention by the filmmaker.  More famously, (and despite a statue in Coney Island commemorating the event) it is unclear whether Reese put his arm around Robinson in Cincinnati in 1947.  We don’t have filmed footage or same-day accounts of the event.  Two years later, Robinson said something like this happened, though he thought it might have been in Boston and it might have been 1948.  Others put it in Cincinnati.  And Reese might not have put his arm around Robinson.

As a historian, though, I’m fine with this scene.

Filmmakers have to invent all sorts of things in film. They make up almost all the dialogue.  They have to arrange scenes in ways that hold together and hold our attention.  They have to build some sort of drama.  Real life is never so neat and tidy and dramatic.  But I’m fine with the scene because it draws the viewers into a better understanding of Robinson.  It also reflects some level of transformation within Pee Wee Reese, who was not an avid supporter of Robinson in the beginning, but did become someone that Robinson counted as a friend.  (He was one of Robinson’s pall bearers at his funeral).   So it reflects what was true about Reese and Robinson.

The portrayal of Reese should give us hope that we can be transformed as well.  That is a much better position for us to be in.  We haven’t conquered the problems of race (or any number of other things) yet.  So it is better that we ask for grace, wisdom and humility, than to thank God (like the man in a certain parable) that we are not racists like those ugly redneck southerners…..


By the way, even if you are not a baseball fan, you should read Jackie Robinson  by Arnold Rampersad.  It is one of the best biographies, of any kind, that I have read.


Also, I’m off to Brazil for two weeks, so there will be another lull in my blogging.




“42” – A Film You Should See Even if You Don’t Like Baseball

What could be better than a film based on baseball and history?

I know, I know.  I am out of the mainstream here, since “42” is currently in 16th place for top grossing films of 2013.

Sorry, no car chases in the film, either.

I guess I am rather weird because I don’t get all that excited by things that thrill other people.  I don’t know if you will find this disappointing, but nothing explodes in “42.”

(I should point out, however, that there were twelve explosions in the 2 ½ previews that I saw before the film began.  Hollywood is amazing:  how do you manage to work an explosion into a preview of “The Great Gatsby?”  Watch carefully.  These are clever people.)

But “42” is a film you should see.

The film tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s first two years of professional baseball when he became the first African American to play in the major leagues since the 1890s.  It was a momentous development for baseball and for American society.

(My wife said that a student in her class was disappointed that this film turned out to be a lot about race and not enough about baseball.  Poor guy.  He probably likes films with lots of explosions, too.  I’m hoping that when he gets older he’ll understand the world a bit better.)

As this teenager discovered, “42” is about race in American history, with themes that I’ll hit in my next blog.  For now, let’s talk baseball.

If you are one of those poor, confused souls who thinks that baseball is boring, you should pay attention to the scene where Robinson takes his first at bat in spring training against his fellow white ball players on the Dodgers.  Let’s just say that there is nothing boring about a baseball flying in at your head at 90 mph.  More to point, I know of no other film that does a better job of capturing the mental battle that take place between a pitcher and catcher in each at bat.  Of course, we are drawn into this battle in the film because of the momentous racial context that this athletic moment represents.  But let me point out that in games without this racial drama, a similar battle still takes place in every at bat.  The same scene wonderfully demonstrates the mental pressure that Robinson regularly put on opposing pitchers once he got on base.  It’s great baseball.

I also love the way the filmmakers established camera angles from right over the shoulder of the catcher.  One not only gets a visceral sense of the speed of pitches coming in, but you see the sweeping arcs of line drives to the outfield right off the bat, as if you were the hitter yourself.

Look closely — there’s a hill out there in Crosley Field!

And thanks to the marvels of computer generated imagery, “42” managed to recreate the sights and spatial sense of the interiors of old ball parks.  These were famous stadiums that were destroyed before I got a chance to see them:  the Polo Grounds in New York, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and Crosley Field in Cincinnati.  (It’s too bad that the film didn’t put in the four foot slope that extended up to the left field fence in Crosley Field, but I suppose that this detail would have just confused or distracted viewers).

Finally, if you don’t understand the appeal of baseball, but are interested in having your life deeply enriched by it, (how can you not want to have your life enriched by baseball?) you should read a wonderful book by Doris Kearns Goodwin entitled Wait Till Next Year.  My wife’s book club (which isn’t exactly packed with baseball fans) is reading it this summer.  It’s Goodwin’s memoir about growing up in Brooklyn as a hopelessly smitten fan of the Dodgers.  Her account of her first communion is worth the price of admission.  It’s a wonderful account of baseball, family and history.  What could be better for a summer read?