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Law Review: 42

Submitted by on May 6 – 2013No Comment

Watching 42, Brian Helgeland’s film about color-barrier breaking baseball player Jackie Robinson, leaves viewers with a number of questions. Why, for instance, have we waited so long for a major Jackie Robinson biopic? There have been a few attempts to tell the story of his life, but it has been a while since one of quality came out. Robinson played himself in a mostly well-received autobiographical film in 1950. After a long drought, the 1990s saw two Robinson films, but both were made-for-TV productions. Regardless of why it took so long for a dramatic motion picture, the performances in 42 were worth the wait.

And why was this the first lead role in a major studio release for Nicole Beharie, who plays Rachel Robinson with completely adorable zest? Why have most moviegoers never seen Chadwick Boseman, who plays the lead? Boseman inhabits the role with a quiet, boiling intensity. His “Jack” Robinson does not laugh off the slander and physical abuse thrown at him. He internalizes them deeply and uncomfortably. As the character struggles to maintain his composure, Boseman makes audiences wonder whether Robinson will finally snap and give his opponents the kind of violent answer they deserve. By embracing Robinson’s pain, Boseman does homage to the man’s triumph. He also succeeds in displaying Robinson’s shocking physicality, giving movie audiences a better idea of what it was like to watch this phenomenal athlete than newsreels can convey.

One more question: Why did it take so long for Harrison Ford to return to high-quality filmmaking? It has been a rough decade for the man who once owned the box office. But in 42, Ford ably plays Branch Rickey, the Dodgers owner who, for reasons both Methodist and capitalist, chose to break baseball’s color barrier and picked Robinson to do it.

42 arrived in theaters serendipitously before professional basketball player Jason Collins’s decision to come out of the closet. Of course, the National Basketball Association had no legal or regulatory barrier to gay players, but as the characters point out early in 42, there was never any law against black players in Major League Baseball either. The film focuses on the difference between society’s written laws and its unwritten codes, and examines the consequences of each.

Jason Collins’s future will undoubtedly be very different from Robinson’s experience in breaking the color barrier. The New York Times noted that statements of praise for Collins’s decision have vastly outnumbered public criticism. The few public remarks disparaging Collins, such as those by ESPN analyst Chris Broussard, met with immediate and widespread condemnation. If Collins gets a chance to continue playing basketball next season (he is currently a free agent), the positive reception of his minority status may overshadow his athletic ability. For Robinson, it was the other way around.

Collins will still confront serious challenges, as will basketball star Brittney Griner, who came out of the closet weeks ago to much less fanfare. In terms of athletic dominance, Griner is a more appropriate successor to Jackie Robinson than Collins could be. Like Robinson, both athletes will face quiet, subtle attacks by those who are too embarrassed to air their feelings in public. The brave men and women who follow will confront many of these challenges on their own, but there will be help: Jackie Robinson’s legacy. In the harsh meritocracy of sport, where fierce competition whittles away all conventions except talent and success, Robinson illustrated the fundamental foolishness of bigotry. He laid the groundwork for Americans to reject superstitious distinctions as a matter of course. His legacy lives on in every media report that does not mention the race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or sexual orientation of an athlete.

Also starring in 42 are Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, and John C. McGinley. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language, and is two hours and eight minutes long. It will probably appeal to fans of historical sports dramas like “Chariots of Fire” and “Miracle.” It will probably not appeal to the lower orders of the moviegoing public: racists and people who hate baseball.

–Austin Murnane, Entertainment Columnist

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