...shining light on the media, one review at a time
There’s a reason that fans of classic novels or people with a movie-worthy history are hesitant to have Hollywood get hold of their story. The fear that much of the truth will change or be lost proves to be a legitimate one, time and again. As long as audiences get an entertaining film in the bargain, they seldom seem to care. Or, worse, they just as often accept the film’s interpretation of the “true” story as actually that – the gospel truth.
Sometimes Hollywood’s reinterpretation of actual events and people is relatively harmless. At other times, however, the liberties that filmmakers take are apocryphal and even defaming. 42, the most recent film version based on Jackie Robinson’s culture-shaping start in baseball, is a perfect example of the latter case.
In 42, Jackie Robinson’s part in ending racial segregation is shown in all its inspirational glory, but the film grossly misrepresents Robinson, the man he was and what enabled him to be that heroic person. With scores of offensive language, 42 makes more fouls than hits in a movie that may look good on screen, but leaves the true and most inspiring Jackie Robinson story still untold.
The year is 1945, and the United States emerges from World War II a changed nation. Yet, the national effort to fight injustice on distant shores did not help the American people to see the injustice that exists at home. Racial segregation still runs rampant throughout much of the country. African Americans are regularly barred from public washrooms, schools, restaurants, hotels, etc.—most labeled with signs that read, “white only.”
Baseball, known for upholding the nation’s traditions and history, is among the most segregated of institutions, with no African-American player in the Major Leagues. African-American baseball players can still play the sport, but only on non-professional teams made up entirely of members of their own race.
Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, decides to change that. Enter Jackie Robinson, a young African American with obvious athletic abilities who also possesses the other qualities Rickey is looking for—Jackie has spirit and the “guts” to fight racial prejudice. To top it off, Jackie is a God-believing Methodist, which puts him in good favor with Methodist Rickey.
Before Rickey will give Jackie a place on his team and in the Major Leagues, Rickey makes sure that Jackie knows what is expected of him—that he have “the guts not to fight back.” Jackie agrees to play ball on Rickey’s terms, but he soon realizes that nothing could prepare him for the slurs, threats, abuse, and outright hatred that he and his loved ones will face.
If Jackie can rein in his pride and channel his spirit into fighting injustice the only way it can be beaten, he will find that it is through such battles that the world is changed and heroes are born.
The real Jackie Robinson was indeed a true hero who changed the world through his courageous actions, and 42 dramatizes his impact with the moving power that only a well-made film can achieve. The cinematography is merely serviceable, but the rest of the production values are a home run.
With the exception of only one, rather heavy-handed message scene that interrupts the plot, the screenplay is otherwise skillfully written and builds to the emotional climax viewers would hope for in such a film. The script also strikes a nice balance between sports movie and drama, leaning much more heavily to the latter category, but still containing enough baseball coverage to please fans.
The standout strength of this film is in the talented cast and the director who handles the actors. The depth of this lineup is quite astonishing, when even the many secondary characters demonstrate chops as impressive as, and sometimes surpassing, the leads. Those leads feature the experienced and famous veteran, Harrison Ford, and relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman.
Ford gives an enjoyable, though somewhat imperfect, turn as Branch Rickey. At an age when playing a formidable, cantankerous old-timer is within Ford’s reach, Ford is still not the best casting choice for this role, as he proves once again that he is at his best with characters that do not require this infinitely likable and approachable actor to be intimidating or severe.
In contrast, Boseman hits it out of the park with his portrayal of Jackie Robinson. Not to be blamed for a script that is not always truthful to the real Robinson, Boseman does all that he can to authentically represent the legendary baseball hero, even managing to look and act very similarly to the real Robinson, right down to his smile. The effort pays off in a memorable, nuanced performance that gives this film its emotional power.
With the players 42 has on its team, this film could have gone all the way. And with the story the movie has to work with, it should have. But when the filmmakers decide to rewrite the playbook at the core of the true story they are supposed to tell, dismal failure can be the only result.
According to 42, both Rickey and Robinson are Methodists. Rickey is the most vocal about his belief in God, quoting Scripture passages frequently to people, including Robinson and the Dodgers’ promiscuous manager. Rickey’s use of the Bible, however, seems to be more of a weapon he uses to persuade people to his way of thinking, rather than as a guidebook for his own life. He refers to Jesus as “our Savior,” in once scene, but, only a few sentences later, spews out “son of a b--ch” (an offense he repeats later in the film). He also never cites Christian motivations for his desire to integrate baseball, but rather a wish to right something wrong in the game he loves.
The inauthenticity of this film, to put it gently, thus begins with the portrayal of Rickey. The real Dodgers’ president is documented as having been a conservative evangelical Christian—a man who told a reporter that his goal in life was "to be both a consistent Christian and a consistent ballplayer” and whose desire to break the color barrier in baseball was because of his Christianity. While the historical Rickey was no doubt imperfect, 42’s version of him as a frequent swearer does not match the historical accounts of the actual man who was recognized for living out his faith, often reciting his family’s motto from his childhood: “"Make first things first, seek the Kingdom of God, and make yourself an example."
Sadly, an even worse foul is committed in 42’s misrepresentation of the person most viewers are watching this film to see—Jackie Robinson himself. Robinson is portrayed as an honorable, responsible man who has a great number of admirable character qualities, and 42 indicates that these characteristics, talent, and supportive friends and family are what enabled the actual Robinson to endure the trials he encountered. This idea is in direct contrast to the factual history of Robinson’s life, since he was a vocal Christian who publically said, many times, that his faith in God is what gave him the courage, strength, and motivation to carry on through the ordeal of integrating baseball.
Again, the most blatant and, from a Christian point of view, libelous misrepresentation of Robinson comes with the offensive language that 42’s Jackie uses. Even more serious than the obscenities that the film puts in Rickey’s mouth, Jackie uses the Lord’s name in vain, exclaiming “God d--n” more than once. Plenty of other characters in the film also employ such language, adding other obscenities and the n-word countless (likely around fifty) times.
Perhaps they would have used such language, but the real-life Robinson, an outspoken Christian who said that God was the reason he was able to do what he did and survive the experience is not likely to have cursed his Savior at his time of need, as 42 would have viewers believe. The filmmakers would have done far better to show more of Robinson’s true character, demonstrating his extreme morality, his commitment to abstinence before marriage, or his public stance on the dangers of liquor.
Such moral and ethical material, however, is far from popular in Hollywood. Accurate portrayals of authentic Christians are apparently equally verboten. If secular filmmakers want to tell the stories of Christian people, the same standards of research and commitment to truth in the retelling that is required for other “based on true story” movies should apply.
Yet, considering that this film is mostly devoid of sexual content (one unmarried couple is seen lying in bed together) and violence, as well as the undeniable importance of the Jackie Robinson story and the positive messages it (and this film) teaches, some viewers may be inclined to think that omitting the Christianity of Rickey and Robinson is not a significant problem. Or, that the inaccuracies should be dismissed as par for the course. After all, Hollywood is not Christian.
That Hollywood is not driven by Christianity is certainly true, but its secular filmmakers do tend to be driven by a liberal agenda that drives them to strip any positive illustrations of Christianity even from historical events. If you are not bothered by watching a movie that makes a concentrated effort to dishonor the memories of great Christian men by disregarding, and arguably destroying, the faith that defined their lives, then, by all means, watch 42 and enjoy.
Just remember that you are watching a fictional account of racial conflict and still missing the true story of the Christian who, by the grace of God, changed the world.