42: a movie about Jackie Robinson

My father used to take the subway to Ebbets Field, and I grew up with stories of the Brooklyn Dodgers and especially Jackie Robinson. So when my parents were in town recently, we all went to see 42, the new movie about how Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. While I would not call it a great film, it’s a well-acted, compelling look at an important piece of history, that has sparked several conversations with my kid about the Negro Leagues, racism, nonviolent activism versus fighting back, and what an amazing, beautiful feat it is to steal home.

As many critics have pointed out, in many ways 42 gives us a predictable, conventional story about a lone male hero (supported by a devoted woman) triumphing over adversity, without a lot of room for character depth or moral ambiguity. On top of that, we only see the most famous interval in Robinson’s career, so we miss the longer, more complex story of his struggle against racism — not to mention the larger social and political forces that helped to integrate professional baseball.

Photo of Jackie Robinson and his son David

Jackie Robinson and his son David being interviewed at the 1963 March on Washington

But within those constraints, 42 does several things well. It starkly presents the racist invective, physical violence, threats, and casual insults that Robinson faced day in and day out, and the fierce dignity with which he faced them. Chadwick Boseman portrays Robinson as a combative man who accepts Dodgers executive Branch Rickey’s rule that he “have the guts not to fight back” while offering no hint of meekness or ingratiation. (For example, as Dave Denby points out in the New Yorker, Robinson “doesn’t easily make friends with the white players who like him.”) Boseman also gives us a taste of Robinson’s brilliant, delicious base-running. As Owen Gleiberman writes in Entertainment Weekly, “Robinson isn’t just teasing the pitchers… He’s mocking them, working off his anger.”

The film also shows us how Robinson’s example spurred some whites to stand up to racism, but thankfully doesn’t treat this as the main event. When Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese gets a piece of hate mail for playing alongside a black man, Rickey shows him the thick stack of hate mail that Robinson has received, including death threats and threats to kidnap his child. Later we see the famous moment in Cincinnati when racist fans are heckling Robinson, and Reese, a white southerner, walks over and puts his arm around his black teammate. “I got family up there from Louisville,” Reese says to Robinson about the people in the stands. “I need ’em to know. I need ’em to know who I am.” Such acts of solidarity in the film are not handed down by enlightened white benefactors. They grow out of teammates’ concrete experiences traveling, living, and working together for the same goal.

Dave Zirin at The Nation criticizes 42 for ignoring the longer struggle to integrate baseball (notably the Communist-led campaign in the 1930s that drew mass labor union support) as well the fact that Branch Rickey and nearly all other major league baseball owners refused to compensate Negro League teams for their players, which “led to the destruction of the largest national black owned business in the United States.” Above all, Zirin points out that “Jackie Robinson spent the last years of his life in a grueling fight against his own mythos. He hated that his tribulations from the 1940s were used to tell a story about an individualistic, Booker T. Washington approach to fighting racism.” Yet 42, which says nothing about Robinson’s later involvement in the civil rights movement, largely continues this individualistic approach. (See also Zirin’s earlier column, “Five Fears About ’42.’“)

Photo of youth baseball players in dugout watching game

Philadelphia youth baseball team wears #42 to commemorate Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, 2013

These shortcomings can serve as jumping-off points for discussions with kids. It’s useful, for example, to compare Robinson’s refusal to fight back in the face of racist provocation with the nonviolent protest used by many civil rights activists (including the first Freedom Riders that same year of 1947), even in the face of beatings and worse. Like Robinson, many civil rights workers weren’t committed pacifists, but accepted nonviolence as a useful strategy in specific circumstances. (Some, such as Robert Williams, disagreed.) It’s also important to highlight some of the differences: for example, unlike the civil rights workers, Robinson was following the dictates of a white employer, and he did this alone, not as part of an organized movement.

Here are two more jumping-off points that come to mind:

  • Compare Jackie Robinson’s struggle with that of Curt Flood, all-star center fielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, and a black man, who in 1969 refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies with the words, “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood’s stance cost him the rest of his career, but it helped eventually to break baseball’s reserve clause, under which teams controlled who players could sign with even after their contracts had expired. (Jackie Robinson testified in support of Flood.)
  • Compare the fight against baseball’s color line with today’s fight against homophobia in sports. There are the same number of openly gay ballplayers in major league baseball today as there were black players in 1946: zero. The same is true in professional men’s basketball, football, and hockey. But this wall is starting to crack. Several retired athletes have come out of the closet, and the National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association recently formed a partnership with You Can Play, an organization that combats homophobia in sports through education.

I’ve talked with my son about several of these issues since we went to see 42 together, and we will continue to talk about them in the months and years ahead. But even without the larger history and context, it just made me happy to see him on the edge of his theater seat, rooting for Jackie Robinson. And given what pop culture has on offer for kids (especially boys), he could do a lot worse than root for a man who had the guts not to fight back.

Related resources (just a few that I happen to know):

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, by Kadir Nelson. This large-format kids’ book covers the full history of the Negro Leagues, and is told in the voice of a veteran ball player looking back. Nelson’s stunning paintings complement his lively text.

Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, by Rachel Robinson with Lee Daniels. Not a children’s book per se, but a detailed commentary on Jackie Robinson’s life and work by his widow, with hundreds of photographs.

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, by Betty Bao Lord. Eight-year-old Shirley Temple Wong immigrates from China to Brooklyn in 1947. Learning to play stickball and rooting for the 1947 Dodgers help her to feel a part of her new community. After her first ball game, Shirley’s classmates nickname her Jackie Robinson “’cause she’s pigeon-toed and stole home.”

Photo credits
Jackie Robinson with his son David, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 08/28/1963. Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier 542024.
Youth baseball team, Philadelphia, PA, April 15, 2013. Photo by Susan Whiteman Nordlof. Used with permission.