42: “Throw Me Something I Can Hit. What Are You Afraid Of?”
By Priscilla Lynn Gonzalez
Despite being bumped off its number one spot in the box office, the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, is still all the buzz amongst teens and adults, sports fans and non-sports fans alike.
The film begins with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), telling his staff about his plan to “bring a negro” into the game of professional baseball. Against any and all advice given to him by his staff and after a heated discussion with his best candidate, Rickey signs 27 year old, Jack Roosevelt Robinson (played exceptionally by Chadwick Boseman) to the Brooklyn Dodgers. With very little insight into his upbringing and personal life, the film goes on to portray some of the extremely real obstacles and hardships Robinson faced on the field: his Dodger teammates draft a petition against him, not being permitted to stay at the same hotels as his teammates, and even being heckled with racial slurs by the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager, Ben Chapman. Despite not really delving into the adversity his support system faced, 42, does portray glimpses of those who chose to stand up and fight for Robinson because they knew he could not: the teammates who defended him against racist comments, who brawled on the field because opposing pitchers intentionally aimed for Robinson’s head. There was even the historically famous moment when Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson on the field while the stadium booed them both. At the end of the film, Robinson earns the respect of all but two of his Dodgers teammates and an increasingly large Caucasian fan base. Writer-director Brian Helgeland leaves the audience with a truly moving concluding scene: After having nothing but balls pitched at him, Robinson challenges Ostermueller, Pittsburg Pirates pitcher, “Throw me something I can hit. What are you afraid of?” Of course, Ostermueller accepts the challenge and throws Robinson a decent pitch that leads to a homerun, which ultimately costs the Pirates the game.
Brian Helgeland does an amazing job capturing Jackie Robinson’s feats and accomplishments as the first African American professional baseball player who broke the color barrier and paved the way for other athletes of color to compete on a professional level. However, what the somewhat cheesy screenplay lacks is a relatable protagonist. Helgeland glorifies an extraordinary athlete’s courage and drive but by doing so, he unfortunately overlooks Robinson’s struggles in life off the diamond. It is only while Branch Rickey looks through prospective baseball players’ profiles that we learn Jackie Robinson was a UCLA alumnus who served in the United States Army. He is described as a Methodist because he was not afraid to take a stand against segregation. But with the exception of very few scenes, all we see Robinson do is bite his tongue, turn the other cheek, steal bases and score runs. The film makes it nearly impossible to see the man behind the number 42 jersey because the halo on his head shines a little too bright at times.
I was immediately drawn to 42 because I am a huge fan of the 2009 Oscar nominated semi-autobiographical sports drama, The Blind Side. While 42 portrays the struggles that an African American adult, Jackie Robinson, endures on the baseball field, The Blind Side illustrates the hardships an African American teenager, Michael Oher, overcomes to later become a professional football player. While the similarities are uncanny—both feature an African American with great athletic talent who finds incredible and undying faith, support and assistance from a wealthy and powerful Caucasian family—it’s two distinct differences are what makes The Blind Side excellent and 42 merely good. The differences are The Blind Side has relatable characters and illustrates of the power of family.
When we first meet Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) in The Blind Side, he is a quiet, traumatized and homeless teenager. With some extraordinary luck, he crosses paths with a saint-of-a-woman, Leigh Anne Tuohy (played by Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock), who provides him with food, clothes, shelter, an education and a family that supports him in every single one of his endeavors. The Blind Side captured the immense feats Michael Oher overcame with the help of his family. It showed the good and bad of this world but most importantly, it showed that everyone, including professional football players and saint-like women like Leigh Anne Tuohy, have fears and flaws and that no one can move mountains alone.
On the other hand, in 42, we meet Robinson when he is already an adult, long passed his UCLA school days and US army days, and is now playing on an African American baseball team with no idea he is destined for greatness. As a fellow Bruin, I think it is completely preposterous that a minority’s struggles and feats at a predominantly Caucasian university were completely ignored. How is it that the fact that Robinson is UCLA’s first four-sport letterman is not mentioned once throughout the film? But perhaps more importantly, how is it that Robinson’s family and upbringing is never even touched upon? Maybe I am the only adult who comes from an ethnic background of color that would be absolutely nothing if my family and friends didn’t push me every single day of my life.
All in all, despite the somewhat predictable screenplay, the perfect-to-a-fault portrayal of Robinson and Harrison Ford’s misuse of Batman’s voice changer, 42 left me exiting the movie theater questioning what I was afraid of, what immense barriers lay ahead of me and whether or not I could step up to the plate while others are just waiting for me to strike out. At the end of the day, we’re all afraid to strike out. But something to remember is that when we are given a decent pitch, whether it comes from family or an outsider, we all have the ability to hit a homerun in the face of any and all adversity that lies ahead. It is the film’s message that makes 42 a good film, not excellent but good nonetheless, and earning it a solid “B” in my book.