42: a good movie that conveys a great message

If I read one more review about how the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 isn’t “raw” or “gritty,” I’m going to bash in my computer screen with a baseball bat.

Then again, why take my frustration out on my poor computer? Better to go upside the heads of critics who don’t understand two things:

• The enormity of the task director/screenwriter Brian Helgeland had before him in condensing the essence of Robinson’s story to two hours.

• Helgeland could have gone all raw and gritty if he’d wanted. This guy wrote the screenplays for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. He directed Payback. Yeah, that’s the film where Mel Gibson gets his toes smashed with a hammer.

Helgeland could have toughened up 42. But that would have meant an R rating. And an R rating would have meant a sizeable portion of 42’s target audience—young people under the age of 18—would have been denied entry into theaters.

Helgeland’s intention was to reintroduce a great story that should have been told in the modern cinema long before now. Kids who may not know about the prejudice that existed in baseball and the United States at large in Jackie Robinson’s time, or how heroic he was to endure it without fighting back, needed to be enlightened.

Imagine the pressure Helgeland faced in walking that fine line between making the movie too syrupy sweet or too raw and gritty. And he had to strike that delicate balance with an exacting critic, Robinson’s widow Rachel, who has carefully guarded her husband’s legacy, looking over his shoulder.

If that were easy, someone would have done it long ago. Remember that the last time the Jackie Robinson story was presented on the big screen, Robinson played himself. That was in 1950.

Several writers and directors tried and failed to convince Rachel Robinson they were capable of telling her husband’s story. Spike Lee, he of Do the Right Thing fame, might have given the critics a harder-edged film, but would 10-year-olds have been able to see it? Robert Redford, Roy Hobbs himself, might have given us another The Natural or Field of Dreams, but the Jackie Robinson story isn’t a celebration of baseball. In many ways, it’s a denunciation of a sport that, despite its own best interests, barred great African-American players from taking part.

Full disclosure: I was a featured extra in the film. I played a sports writer, no big stretch because I really am a sports writer. As I was being fitted in a period wool suit and hat and getting my hair buzzed around the sides, as I walked into the ballpark—historic Engel Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn.—that would serve as the Brooklyn Dodger’s Ebbets Field, I was taken back to Robinson’s day. Watching a scene of a father and his young son hurling racial slurs at Robinson, played by the young actor Chadwick Boseman, I got a hint at what Robinson went through.

But because of my insider’s look at the process of making this film, I was also a bit leery. In the three days I was on set, I saw things that made me wonder if Helgeland and his cast and crew were going to be able to do right by Jackie Robinson, to tell his story, depict the horror of racism, and finally, be able to get in and get out in two hours.

It was with a bit of trepidation I sat down to an advanced screening of 42. But almost immediately, I knew that Helgeland had accomplished his mission. 42 is a good movie. But more important, it conveys a great message.

Give Helgeland credit for making sure that message reached as many people as it could.