But what does that teach us about our collective past our current selves?
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford star in the Jackie Robinson biopic, “42”
Prior to attending the recent press screening of writer-director Brian Helgeland’s sports biopic, I experienced a low-level sense of dread, the same sensation that arises anytime there’s a Hollywood historic take on race relations. I know this is going to sound like a conservative argument, but I fear the liberal media bias that emerges in the re-telling of these stories. Without fail, there’s generally a too-sweet sentimentality that transforms African American subjects into saintly figures lacking in humanity. They become super men and women from another world and yet they also seem to lack the ability to affect social and cultural justice for themselves. Kryptonite abounds; it is there in every exchange and these black characters need the good will and steadfast support of white folks to take charge of their own situations.
And things get worse, far more insidious, for these hapless heroes because the stories documented become less about them and focus more on the white characters. History gets a revisionist whitewashing.
It reminds me of that moment, at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a film that certainly didn’t even need any more overt sentimentality. It was already about a white savior, with a certain legitimacy that could not be denied. But there it was, that moment in the camp, just off the battlefield, with Lincoln talking to two pairs of soldiers – one white, the other black – and one of the black soldiers (David Oweleyo) quotes Lincoln’s famous lines back to him. It is a moment that simply could not have been true, an all-too carefully scripted scene that only a white liberal writer could love because it was only about making the white liberal members of the audience feel good. That is what liberal revisionism is all about.
Helgeland isn’t immune to such pandering either and he’s even able to make his appeal regional. Midwestern (Cincinnati) moviegoers have a bone thrown their way when Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), a Greater Cincinnati native, comes over to first and throws his arm around Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) in front of the Reds faithful, who were decidedly less than open to embracing integration. Helgeland puts words in Reese’s mouth – “maybe one day we’ll all wear 42, so no one can tell us apart.” It is sickeningly sweet and less prescient than just a nod to current reality.
But just as often, “42” digs deeper and unearths uncomfortable moments that seem to spit in the face of feel good sentiment. The strongest example is the race-baiting trash talk of Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) every time Robinson comes to the plate. Profanity, repeated uses of the n-word and insults that spread from Robinson to his white teammates spew forth in geyser-like eruptions. Scenes like this always appear in such movies, but rarely is a filmmaker so willing to let it drag on quite like Helgeland does here. And I would argue it is a wise and appropriate choice because if, one day, we are all going to wear the number 42, each and every one of us should have a sense of what Robinson was subjected to while he wore the number. We need to understand what it was like to want to speak out, to dish out some retaliation for the wrongs endured, yet to have to stand and take it all in silence. Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) reminds Robinson, time and again, that he must be like Jesus, offering his cheek for yet another smack. Robinson, full of pride and quiet anger, reflects our human urges, the ones we can’t whitewash away.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com