“You’re medicine, Jack!” growls Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in writer-director Brian Helgeland’s 42. He’s talking, of course, to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the Negro League player whom he’s hired to play in the big leagues, breaking baseball’s color barrier.
In this version of the story, Rickey never doubted himself, knew exactly how to make it happen and picked a ballplayer tough enough to deal with the nasty stuff he’d have to put up with, but smart enough not to fight back. Thank you, Jackie Robinson, for swinging the bat at the ball and not at anyone’s head.
Helgeland’s movie jumps back and forth from Robinson’s preparation in the minor leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers preparation for his arrival: “He is coming!” bellows manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), like John the Baptist prophesying about the messiah.
Combined with Rickey’s mentions of God as the ultimate baseball fan, and the way Robinson is picked almost randomly from a stack of files by Rickey and said to be blessed with “superhuman” talent, Robinson is made an incidental part of this scheme. It’s fate. There is no other way this could have happened. Of course, thinking Robinson is superhuman instead of smart and devoted enough to play the game well is its own more nuanced brand of racism. But that’s beyond the grasp of 42.
This simplification of things, and Helgeland’s robust embrace of sports movie clichés, make 42 feel innocent and a little dumb, but there’s something more sinister at work here. Everything is soft tones and swelling music, victory in the face of adversity and inspirational sound bites. The racism that Robinson faces is played out in crude, simple-minded strokes.
There is one kind of bigot in 42, and that’s the buffoonish kind of dope who throws the n-word around. It’s not the fan who today begrudges the New York Mets for honoring Number Forty-Two with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at their ballpark. (This is a conversation I overheard at a Mets game.) That guy probably doesn’t go around calling people “coon,” but his kind of racism is worse, because he doesn’t think it exists.
Helgeland’s childish view of racism—that it has nothing to do with money, history or the subconscious, and that it’s entirely about whether people like each other or not—implies a dangerous viewpoint. As long as we say we’re getting along, as long as we’re not calling each other names, we’re doing fine. Thank you, Branch Rickey and Brian Helgeland, for this smooth antidote to racism.
But whose medicine is Jackie Robinson? And do they deserve it? Helgeland isn’t interested in these questions. Worse, he doesn’t seem aware that they exist. (It’s too bad, because as is clear from the crisp way he films a double-play, Helgeland could have made an excellent baseball movie.) When Dodgers shortstop Pee-Wee Reese makes a show of putting his arm around Robinson in front of a hostile crowd, that moment is not about Reese or Robinson, but about a little white boy in the stands who was imitating his dad by calling Robinson a “nigger” five seconds before. But revelation! Now that the boy has seen Reese embrace Robinson, he’s forced to have second thoughts.
Helgeland does this kind of thing over and over throughout 42. As he has Rickey say in various ways throughout the movie, the greatest thing Robinson could do was change white people’s minds. He proceeds from the presumptuous notion that white people deserved Jackie Robinson, and concludes with the assumption that they took the medicine.