In 42, America comes up looking and smelling like roses. You could get the impression that this period laid the foundation for America's post-racial society. The problem is one, this movie doesn't cover the brutal reaction against racial integration, which led to the present system of mass incarceration author Michelle Alexander, has called, the new Jim Crow. Moreover, there is no post-racial America, and the Tea Party is proof positive of it. And so is racial profiling. So, the movie really doesn't do justice in showing the racism Jackie confronted; the stress he endured and the gravity of his sacrifice were burdens which no doubt contributed to his short career and death at the fairly young age of 52. The movie reduced his “sufferings” to three scenes, when in fact his entire rookie season was plagued by such antics. In the movie's defense, it only covered about three years of his life, highlighting his rookie year in the majors, i.e., his breaking of the color line in baseball.
The movie had both whites heroes and villains. The heroes were more memorable than the villains, with Rickey being the most memorable. He had a couple of pithy, wisdom inspired lines. Most of the villains were one dimensional. All of the Black characters were shallow and one-dimensional, but saintly. Jackie was even portrayed as being “without” sin. His character was very likable but he lacked fired. He was almost docile. In real life Jackie was quiet but volatile if wronged. He was a self-respecting man that would not hesitate to confront injustice. He was also a god-fearing sober individual. I am not sure if any of these qualities came across as strongly as I would have liked them to. I think Chadwick Boseman did a very good job showing us an affable, loving man and husband, but I think the script was lacking.
On to the larger question, one I have often pondered: “Did Jackie Robinson integrate baseball?” Yes and No. Jackie deserves credit because he kept his end of the bargain—he did not succumb to racist insults and treatment. (He promised Rickey that he would behave during his rookie year—and he did. Jackie did, however, in later years repay many of his on-field abusers.) This is especially significant because as I already pointed out Jackie Robinson was no punk, so, for him to tolerate the utter foolishness the majors dished out, was a task that many of us are unwilling or unable to do. The dignity with which Robinson handled racism—including its verbal and physical abuses both on and off the field—drew public attention to its folly, stirred the consciences and sympathies of many white Americans, and inspired Afrikan Americans with pride and self-confidence. Martin Luther King Jr. once told Dodgers star Don Newcombe, another former Negro Leaguer, "You'll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job." This and the fact that Jackie used his influence to fight for civil rights off the field is significant. Robinson viewed his sports celebrity as a platform from which to challenge racism. Many sportswriters and other players—including some of his fellow black players—considered Robinson too angry and vocal about racism. During and after his playing days, he joined the civil rights crusade, speaking out—in speeches, interviews, and his column—against racial injustice. In 1949, testifying before Congress, he said: "I'm not fooled because I've had a chance open to very few Negro Americans." He also was an advocate of Black capitalism, which put him at odds with many of the same individuals and groups that advanced baseball's integration.
But baseball was integrated from the top down not the bottom up. Powerful baseball economic interest were behind its integration. These interests were initially pressured by a protest movement that began in the 1930's. This protest movement is documented in two books: Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment (1983) and Chris Lamb's Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball (2012). According to them, Rickey's plan came after more than a decade of efforts by Black and left-wing journalists and activists to desegregate the national pastime. As early as the 1930s, the Black press, civil rights groups, the Communist Party, progressive white activists, and radical politicians waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball. It was part of a growing movement to eliminate discrimination in housing, jobs, and other sectors of American society. It included protests against segregation within the military, mobilizing for a federal anti-lynching law, marches to open up defense jobs to Blacks during World War II, and boycotts against stores that refused to hire Afrikan Americans.
The movie, like the media in general, has reduced this movement and history to two individuals: Branch and Jackie--further reducing it to the ideas that “Jackie Robinson integrated baseball.” The integration of baseball was not an event but a historical outcome that was soon to be reflected in other aspects of U.S. society—it just came through the sport of baseball first. The movie in overlooking the tremendous role the protest movement played, also belittled one of the key voices in that movement—that of Wendell Smith, sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith is portrayed by Andrew Holland in 42, and his role is as Robinson's traveling companion and the ghost-writer for Robinson's newspaper column during his rookie season, when in reality, he was a key agitator and leader of the long crusade to integrate baseball even before Robinson came on the scene. Moreover, according to Cleveland Indians owner and team president Bill Veeck, it was Smith, who actually influenced Rickey to take Jackie Robinson.
In the mid-1940s, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, a business man and idealist, convinced the Dodger's Board of Directors to let him integrate the Dodger team. Part of his argument was that the Negro League (NL) had numerous star athletes, that the Dodger could get first mover's advantage, hiring them at below market prices. That the integrating of the team, could potentially double its market, as now Blacks would attend Major League games. Also, at the time, Mexico's Jorge Pasquel was acquiring NL players (e.g., Satchel Paige), as well as disgruntled white players, and building a competitive Mexican League, that might in time compete on a talent level with the U.S. major leagues. These were all business concerns. This is not to say, that Rickey did not also have a moral agenda. But given the history of America, business and economic interest come before morality or moral suasion. In fact, though it has been argued that Rickey was deeply religious, he did not do the morally right thing when he failed to compensate the Monarchs for Robinson, nor for Don Newcombe, who would also join the Dodgers from a NL team. Rickey even tried to obtain Monte Irvin from the NL Newark Falcons, but team owner, Effa Manley, challenged Rickey and threatened to sue his if she was not compensated. Rickey backed down. (According to Rickey, he did not offer compensation to the Monarchs, instead believing all Negro league players were free agents due to their NL contracts' not containing a reserve clause.)
The selection of Jackie was tactical. Rickey had long wanted to hire black players. He knew that if the experiment failed, the cause of baseball integration would be set back for many years. Rickey's scouts identified Robinson—who was playing for the NL's Kansas City Monarchs after leaving the army—as a potential barrier-breaker. Rickey could have chosen other NLegro players with greater talent or more name recognition, but he wanted someone who could be, in today's terms, a role model. Robinson was young, articulate and well educated. His mother moved the family from Georgia to Pasadena, California in 1920 when Robinson was 14 months ago. Though Pasadena was deeply segregated, Robinson lived among and formed friendships with whites growing up there and while attending Pasadena Junior College and UCLA. He was UCLA's first four-sport athlete (football, basketball, track, and baseball), twice led the Pacific Coast League in scoring in basketball, won the NCAA broad jump championship, and was a football All-American. Rickey knew that Robinson had a hot temper and strong political views, but he calculated that Robinson could handle the emotional pressure while helping the Dodgers on the field. In a famous three-hour exchange on August 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face the racial animus without taking the bait and reacting angrily. Robinson was aghast and said: "Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?" Rickey replied that he needed a player "with guts enough not to fight back." The rest is history.
The movie is very good. It is warm and funny; it is funny at times that maybe it shouldn't be—particularly in its melodic use of the n-word. The movie champions the individual, the human spirit, romantic love, and ultimately, freedom/democracy. These are the standards of Western propaganda. But become of their emphasis, the real history of the integration of baseball is foreshortened, and we never see the role that groups of people, an actual protest movement, and what it did to change America.