It is the unfortunate lot of all historians that the significance of so many past events are simply lost on the masses. There are some, thankfully, that seem to resonate. If you live in the United States, then you at least have an inkling that the Fourth of July is important, despite over half of the population not knowing the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. That would be 1776, just so we are clear. Every once in a while, there comes a movie that attempts to show imperfectly in moving picture form what our present society seems to aggressively and blatantly ignore. Who cares what occurred 200, 100, even fifty years ago or more when you can lose yourself in whatever latest TikTok trend is hitting the social media platforms? This is why the old saying goes that history is doomed to repeat itself, because people ignore it. Worse yet, those that know about the past have a certain power that, when exercised to their advantage, can have devastating consequences. Despotic regimes have risen because they controlled the narrative of history over an ignorant (sometimes forcefully so) populace. You can shake your head at such rhetoric all you want, but I can give you a modern-day example with what Putin is currently doing to the Russian people. Here in the United States, we have our own painful histories with which to contend that should be understood, or, dare I say it, else. Major League Baseball (MLB) does its part every April 15th when, on the anniversary of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) taking the diamond as the first African American professional baseball player to play in an official game, every big leaguer wears his number, the title of today’s film, 42 (2013).
Early on in 42, African American reporter Wendell Smith (André Holland) lays the groundwork for why this story is significant. African Americans, already dealing with the problems of Jim Crow segregation despite having fought against fascism during World War II, were also barred from professional baseball. There is one team executive out there that wants to change things for the better, and that is the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). At first, people around him, including in his own organization, think he is crazy. His forcefulness in arguing that it is the right thing to do persuades them. With that settled, the question then becomes who? There are several talented candidates out there, playing in the separate (and some at that time might have said superior talent-wise), so-called Negro Leagues. Rickey does not want just anyone, he wants the right one, somebody who will be able to handle the historic nature of the position in which he was to be placed. An exhaustive search leads them to Jackie Robinson. The first time we see him in earnest is during a stop for gas with his all black teammates at a white gas station. When the attendant tells him he cannot use the toilet because it is reserved for whites, Jackie responds by saying they are leaving without getting the fuel. The loss of profit from that much gasoline changes the attendant’s mind. This is also when Rickey’s representatives catch up with Jackie. At first, Jackie is incredulous. He meets with Rickey, who explains why the executive is choosing him. Rickey is blunt, telling Jackie how difficult it is going to be, and how the player cannot respond as he might wish because no matter the cause, Jackie would be blamed. It is an almost impossible proposal, but Jackie agrees. After getting married to his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), he travels to Daytona, Florida, to join the Dodgers for spring training. There are many that are displeased with this development, not only in the still solidly Southern state of Florida but on his own team. Among them is his AAA manager, Clay Hopper (Brett Cullen) of the Montreal Royals, whose racial attitudes are expressed to Rickey. Rickey responds by saying that he either play Jackie and treat the player fairly, or he would be out of the job. While this persuades Hopper, the white citizens of Florida are less compliant, and Jackie is forced to be furtively extricated from a few potential threats. In any case, his play in 1946 for the Royals earns him a place on the big league team the following season. This comes with more trouble. The first is in the form of a threat on the part of the Dodgers veterans to quit the team if Rickey persists in making Jackie their teammate. Though Rickey, with manager Leo Durocher’s (Christopher Meloni) help, is able to put down this little rebellion, there are some lingering misgivings. What begins to win them over is seeing Jackie’s performance in the face of all the challenges before him. The worst comes when the Philadelphia Phillies manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), stands outside the dugout and as close as he can to the batter’s box while Jackie is up, hurling a string of racial insults at the African American player. They are plainly heard by everyone within earshot, particularly Jackie, who goes into the walkway behind the dugout to scream and break a bat by slamming it against the wall. Rickey comes done to comfort his player, but it is his teammates that rally around him, including almost everyone who had originally threatened to walk off the team if Jackie had been allowed to play with them. The most poignant moment comes when the Dodgers go to play the Cincinnati Reds, a city just across the Ohio River from the solidly Southern state of Kentucky. With a stadium full of booing fans, Kentucky native and star player Harold “Pee Wee” Reese (Lucas Black) stands on the field next to Jackie with his arm around his teammate. This, along with his already prodigious talents, help Jackie to win rookie of the year honors, and propel his team to the National League pennant. That is essentially where the film ends.
There is a somewhat humorous Christian angle to 42. When settling on Jackie, Rickey says that one of his reasons for picking the player he does is because Jackie is a Methodist. He goes on to claim that God is a Methodist. No offense to one of baseball’s pioneers, but no. I will even go so far to say that God is not a Catholic, either. God is above these imperfect distinctions. Catholicism, since it is as close as one can get to the time of Jesus, is the Faith with which I will stick because of that tradition. It is also a sect that allows for God to work in other ways. One thing that all Christians can agree upon is the importance of turning the other cheek. The principle comes from Matthew 5:39, which says, “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other to him as well.” Rickey terms it somewhat differently. When they first meet and Rickey lays out the challenges that lay ahead, Jackie asks if his new general manager does not want him to fight back. The supposition seems crazy to Jackie, particularly one who once got court martialed while in the army for refusing to sit in the back of a bus. It is not that Rickey does not want Jackie to fight. Rickey wants someone who is willing to stand up for that in which he believes. What Rickey desires most is for Jackie to have the courage not to fight back. This is the essence of what Jesus says in Matthew, and it is no easy request. When someone insults us, we want to respond. We seek redress, a word which means to set right an injustice. The problem is that we cannot always know, particularly in moments when we are purposely provoked, how to “set things right.” In these heated exchanges, we often choose the wrong action. Rickey perceives things this way. He tells Jackie that the moment he raises his fist or voice to stick up for himself, the headlines will not say African American baseball player nobly defends his honor, but that a crazed black man loses his mind and is unfit for the game. Jackie handles the situation as the suffering Jesus would have done, and he should be commended not just with all of MLB wearing his number on one day out of the year, but with any other plaudit we can heap upon him.
There is something to be said, too, about the things that 42 gets right, historically speaking, particularly with Ford’s performance as Branch Rickey. Yet, this takes a back seat to the importance of the moment portrayed in the film. It is hard to do justice in cinematic form to the incredible emotional and physical battle Jackie had to wage throughout his career. The fact that he did so, and this movie does a pretty good job of showing it, makes it something that I think everyone should see. It is a movie not just for baseball and/or history nerds like me, but for anyone with a sense of right, and in need of an example of how best to handle wrong.