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Brian Helgeland's account of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier is palatable, good-hearted entertainment



Will someone please explain to me how racism works? How do you look a man in the face and tell him that he's less than you? That he can't do what he's good at because he'd have to do it alongside white people? That he can't even use the urinal next to the one you're using?

Jackie Robinson was good at playing baseball. He was better than some and not as good as others, and he was black while some of the ones he was better than were white. Nonetheless, he had to play in a special league just for people like him. And the white people who played in their own special league still thought they were the best at what they did.

It's that simple, and so were — so are — the people who still think like this. The story that writer/director Brian Helgeland tells in 42 — about how Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) integrated Major League baseball in 1947 — almost seems like science fiction today. But it isn't an allegory or a metaphor. 

42 is exactly what I expected it to be: a palatable, good-hearted entertainment, with many quietly stirring moments along with a share of sappy ones. Everything small and intimate in 42 works well, including the coolly charismatic Boseman and, in a surprisingly enjoyable character performance, the usually listless Ford. It's unfortunate that most of the movie's racists are caricatures because that doesn't help us understand them very much. But again, it's what I expected. 

Helgeland's speechified dialogue is sometimes trite but usually very thoughtful. Robinson learns that a white man can get angry at an insult, but a black man has to behave like a "gentleman" or they'll blame him for the provocation. So he swallows a lot of pride, and eventually, he realizes that he's taking these insults for the tens of millions of African Americans who will benefit from his breakthrough.

Much of 42 counts on two modes of attachment: our disgust at the sound of racism, and our affection for the iconography (i.e., clichés) of baseball and baseball movies. How could America's pastime ever have been so un-American? When an old white man sings the National Anthem before Robinson's first Major League game, Helgeland slowly moves in on Robinson's face. He's fighting back tears, but we don't know whether it's because he's moved by a song about the land of the free, or because America, despite its self-image, still wasn't. 

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