I watched the Super Bowl for the first time this year. I was bored to tears for just about the whole game. Why? Because I’m simply not into most sports. I sort of understand them, but it’s rare for them to hold much, if any, excitement for me. Sport movies on the other hand are one of the great pleasures of going to the theater. They have a plot, characters I can root for, and maybe even some historical material that I can learn about if the movie is based on true events. My most recent sports film adventure was 42 (2013), a biopic about famed 1940s and 1950s baseball player Jackie Robinson.
42 wasn’t the first film about Robinson. A 1950 picture, The Jackie Robinson Story, was made starring Robinson as himself. While I’ve heard that film served as a love letter to baseball, 42 is a character piece focusing on the trials and tribulations of Robinson’s first season as a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) is the first black player in the Major Leagues since 1884. He faces racism from the public, managers like Philadelphia Phillie’s Ben Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk), and even some of his own teammates. Some support from the Dodgers’s executive manager, Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), and others like his wife (played by Nicole Beharie) give Robinson the strength and guidance to make it through a rough premiere season.
Schmaltz is rife in 42. The opening scene, where Rickey explains his goal of integrating Major League baseball, has enough cheese and overblown music to make even Spielberg at his most sentimental look subtle. The schmaltz is keyed down after this, but later scenes bring it right back in. I initially had a problem with how sentimental and corny 42 could be. It didn’t ruin the movie by any means. I just rolled my eyes a little. I had no such issue on my second viewing. Instead of rejecting the schmaltz, I embraced it. I knew it was there and accepted it as part of the drama. My enjoyment of the film increased ten-fold. Yes, the cheesiness can still be a bit much in certain scenes, but cheese can be a welcome ingrediant in some movies. It certainly is in this one.
It’s probably appropriate the film has a particular amount of schmaltz since 42 is feel good entertainment at the end of the day. The story deals with racism. How could it not? The overcoming of prejudice is what the movie is all about. Robinson is forced to listen to taunts from Tudyk’s character, who likes to constantly yell racial slurs at Robinson during Dodger vs. Philly games. Death threats also keep piling up for Robinson. His temper doesn’t always make it easy to ignore such insults and dangers. After all, it’s not just he who is vunerable. His wife, Rachel, and their newborn child are uprooted and forced to live in places where they aren’t always safe. Robinson and his family must push past these hazards if Baseball integration is to work. All these situations concerning intolerance being present, 42 doesn’t delve into any new ground on the issues of racism nor is it an ultra-serious drama or message movie. It’s a semi-light picture that is thoughtful about its messages regarding bigotry while still leaving you with a sense of hope when the final game of the film concludes.
42 isn’t groundbreaking nor is it in the toptier of sports films. Its high level of schmultz might turn some off, and it doesn’t say anything unique about racism. It is to the movie’s credit that it remains entertaining, interesting, and a good watch for sports and non-sports fans alike.