The Brooklyn Dodgers of the late ‘40s and early to mid ‘50s are arguably the most beloved and fondly remembered team in the history of baseball. Nicknamed the Bums, the club became the first to integrate in ’47 with the signing of Jackie Robinson and within just a few years, trotted out an eclectic and lovable melting pot line-up mashing together African-Americans, Latin Americans, white dudes and even arguably, the greatest Jewish athlete in baseball history. Together, they won at an incredible rate, picked up a slew of National League pennants, sent numerous players to the Hall of Fame, won a World Series and happily co-existed like brothers from different mothers. They were like the cooler, way more historically important TC Williams Titans (all the way down to the horrifying car crash).
Fortunately or unfortunately, 42 is not the story of that team. Robinson and his buddies Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella don’t finally overcome the Yankee powerhouse during the last scene because the film takes place a full eight years before that happens, back when those players were either rarely used rookies, still in the minors or still in the Negro Leagues. In fact, with the exception of Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), 42 really doesn’t prominently feature any of Robinson’s classic Dodgers teammates. Instead 42 tells the story of how Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) came to break the color barrier and the lonely season he spent in 1947 when the reward for his incredible accomplishment and unquestioned bravery more often amounted to death threats and crippling loneliness alongside his devoted wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie).
The seeds of integration started in the mind of baseball genius Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). He created the baseball farm system in the 1930s, and as the film opens, he’s mentally toying with his next big move. He wants to integrate the game. He wants to bring in black players not only because he thinks it’s right but because he thinks black players represent an incredible mine of untapped resources. He just needs to find the right player. Quickly, he hones in on Robinson, a star track athlete and World War II veteran who spent much of his life happily co-existing with white people in California. He signs him to a minor league contract and hopes to God he’ll play well enough to get called up to the Dodgers the following year.
Of course, he does, but that was never really a question. The reason why baseball stayed integrated decade after decade was because people didn’t know how the other players and how the fans would respond. As it turns out, the hows largely depend on the specific person. A certain percentage of people, including Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) are willing to play with anyone that could help the team win. A good percentage of others are disgusted by sharing the field with an African-American. Their protests manifest themselves in various forms including petitions, mockery and blatant racism. Writer/ director Brian Helgeland could have pulled his punches concerning racist slurs. He does not. In fact, he lets Alan Tudyk (playing bigoted Phillies manager Ben Chapman) deliver one of the most stomach-turning and emotionally upsetting taunts we’ll see on film this year. It’s haunting, but it also actually happened and needs to be remembered.
That’s really 42’s greatest strength. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or offer any particularly interesting camera angles or filmmaking ideas. It’s very conventional in the way it’s put together. Occasionally, it even feels a little sappy and rushed, but its heart is in the right place and it never shies away from the truth. Robinson’s year was partially magical and partially horrifying. If either of those elements had been removed, it would have mattered less, and it wouldn’t play so well sixty-five-years later. If breaking the color barrier were easy, it would have been done without fanfare decades sooner.