“If they really knew who you are, they’d be ashamed” says Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) to her husband Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) – the first African American, Major League Baseball player, subject to racist abuse from the ignorant and uneducated punters. It’s this very notion that exists throughout this Brian Helgeland drama, as 42 is a touching, heartfelt and inspiring movie of a man unfairly judged on the colour of his skin, combating the vitriolic abuse by playing baseball – and being damn good at it.
Set in the 1940s, forward-thinking executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides he wants to sign a black player for his team the Brooklyn Dodgers, to reach out to a wider crowd and inspire the black population to get more involved in the sport. When he stumbles on the immensely talented Jackie Robinson, in the face of adversity he recruits him in an instance, going against the various players who have expressed their discontent at their potential new teammate. But Robinson battles on, determined to prove his worth despite the nasty racism he is on the receiving end of – having to grow thick skin, learn to control his temper – and find allies in the most unlikely of places, as history is made as the athlete is handed the now infamous, 42 shirt.
Given the nature of this tale, 42 can be accused of being a little overly sentimental at times, with a emotionally manipulative score kicking in on various occasions to tell us when we’re supposed to feel sad. It’s a shame really, as this story has enough depth and is poignant enough, that we don’t need to be reminded by a stereotypical, Hollywood soundtrack. Though Helgeland can’t rewrite history as such (feeling somewhat pragmatic with its realistic and not completely joyous finale), the filmmaker does uses up all nine lives of his artistic licence, as there are several occurrences that you just know would never have played out in such a way, as 42 loses some of its own identity, instead becoming too archetypal and hackneyed.
Where 42 does stand out, however, is by not making the white man the hero – which films such as this can so often be accused of, like The Help, for instance. Such a sentiment doesn’t exist this time around, as Rickey has recruited Robinson preliminary to make more money for himself by branching out to a wider audience, he’s not just doing this out of the kindness of his heart. Ford is very impressive though, putting in a glowing performance – despite the overacting in certain sequences. Boseman is also wonderful, playing the role with a humility and subtlety it needs, that makes the character so endearing and easy to support.
Recent picture Red Tails also focused in on the same period of time, about African Americans vying for acceptance in an otherwise white vocation – yet 42 handles such themes more delicately and productively. There is just something about baseball that has a romanticised notion in cinema, with a classic edge to it that seems to work so well on the big screen, making for an emotional piece of cinema. If it hadn’t been for the number on the back of Robinson’s shirt, 42 could easily have stood for the amount of times this film makes you burst into tears.