In the United States, the race card plays as a trump. It beats other hands and plays. It shifts the dynamic and often the rules of a game. Today people mutter that minorities play the race card for gain or protection. But the history the race card is deeper and uglier. The race trump has a long history of lots of bad and a little good. The South played it at the Constitutional Convention to enshrine slavery. The South played it to end fugitive slave laws and hold the north hostage for fifty years prior to the civil war. Lincoln played it to help win the civil war, and Republicans used it to reconstruct the South. The Democrats played it to begin segregation and the Republicans played it under Nixon to create the modern race based Republican party. You get the picture.
By 1947 the plays of the race card had resulted in a segregated America reflected in sports where parallel worlds of sports, especially baseball coexisted in the economic and cultural shadow of professional baseball. In 1947 amid the tumult of the post war years, Branch Rickey the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers played the race card big time in America’s biggest sport and source of heroic narrative baseball. He shattered the rebuilt Maginot line of cultural and legal racial segregation—separate but equal—by bringing in Jackie Robinson—number 42—to be the first Negro player in the major leagues.
I once asked my dad, a midwestern moderate Republican, why he so strongly supported civil rights He looked at me and said, “I fought with Negroes in the war. They defended our country. They deserve their rights.” That’s all he said and that’s all he needed to say. His comments always stayed with me and came through very powerfully when I watched the stately and careful story of how Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the movie 42.
Americans have always played out their diverse tensions in their movies. It could be the racist old south defense of Birth of a Nation or the stories of multi-ethnic platoons in World War II movies or the gangster or Indian stereotypes in the movies of the thirties and fifties. Movies could respond to and help move the culture in revising these narratives as the great Godfather moves rethought the gangster narratives.
Sports has always thread through American consciousness as a source of identity, community and proxy conflict. Sports movies ally two powerful cultural forces and can address head on the many racial and gender issues. 42 continues that tradition as well as the recalling of how raw and real racism was and is with such movies as GloryRoad and Remember the Titans.
In post war America baseball occupied a unique spot as THE American sport. It riveted attention of the entire country and provided endless narratives of heroic figures. The Post-war era heightened this heroic focus because so many great players had fought in the war. Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial or Ted Williams now returned as heroes of war and sport. 42 focuses upon how this time provided a window of opportunity for Rickey to attack the fundamental taboo and color line that segregated America into two decidedly unequal cultures.
Played with crusty and mumbling charm and surprising strength by Harrison Ford, Branch Rickey laid the ground work carefully having scouted the Negro leagues for years. He prepared his own assessment of the various candidates to be the first. He turned down several candidates for not possessing the type of mental toughness to endure the abuse and stress of being the first. He thought and culled as much as the civil rights movement trained its workers during the fifties to prepare for the abuse and violence they would experience in the south.
Questioned by his own staff about the wisdom of the choice, Rickey responded in terms of sheer money and talent. He would draw in Negro fans and tap an untapped reservoir of motivated talent that could give the Dodgers a competitive edge. In public he explained the race card as about money and talent.
The movie does a fine-grained job of showing how important support from the top remained. When Robinson’s minor league manager said, “not bad for a nigger,” Rickey informed him “you call him that again, you are fired.” The lesson remains true; changing a culture requires unwavering support from the top.
Rickey turns to the famed Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Jackie Robinson, played with stoic intensity by Chadwick Boseman, is chosen. In Rickey’s eyes Robinson had served as an officer in the war with a record of “insubordination” that really meant he refused to knuckle under to racism. Robinson came battle tested and a veteran. He had played baseball for UCLA that meant he could get along with white players. And he played the game with ferocious abandon dedicated to winning. To Rickey’s eye he possessed the unflinching physical courage and toughness that could help him endure what Rickey believed would be a hell storm of abuse and assault.
Robinson and his new wife worried with good reason about doing this. But the money and the chance to prove that he could compete at the best level drew him. Robinson saw himself as an individual, an incredibly strong and proud and private man, who never grew comfortable with being a symbol. A true American he wanted to achieve success as an individual, but had to serve as a reluctant but strong symbol and pathfinder. The movie makes clear that his marriage remained his source of strength and renewal amid the brutal attacks.
In a crucial meeting between Branch Rickey and Robinson, Rickey race baits Robinson. It infuriates Robinson, the anger the pain explode, “You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?” Branch Rickey responds, “No. I want a player who's got the guts *not* to fight back.”
Rickey knows that Robinson is a living test and he cannot flunk it or a whole generation of young raising Negro players will have their dreams postpone longer. Rickey ends with the warning “Your enemy will be out in force. But you cannot meet him on his own low ground.”
The movie lances through the endless private and wounding moments that illustrate the sheer tax of being black in America. Having to hide in a car being chased by rednecks. Having to live in a private home in a different part of town from the team. Having to fight hotels to be housed and served with the team. Having to take a shower separate from his teammates. Being ignored by cabs. Having to have a driver just to protect him. Walking down a street of white people abraded his life with endless affronts. This black tax exists today, very real, but more hidden.
And yet amid the endless fear and tenseness moments of grace occur. A white worker crosses the street to Robinson and his wife who both go into a defensive crouch. The worker simply thanks and congratulates him and tells him that he supports him. You can see some of this in the crowds slowly changing expectations.
Yet one scene remains with anyone who sees the movie. A young boy sits with his father and watches the game. The boy admires Robinson’s skill and drive, but when his dad starts screaming “go home nigger” and everyone else does too, the boy, almost in tears, joins his father, screaming at the player he wanted to admire. As another fifties’ artifact stated in South Pacific, “you have to teach them to hate.” It can feel like a bludgeon sometimes, but the movie records the reality of the daily assault, and we need to remember who we were and are trying to move beyond.
The press of outside culture never ends, but the deepest wounds to Robinson came from within the game. His own teammates signed a petition to not play if Robinson played. Leo Durocher the Dodger’s brash and brilliant manager played to perfection by Christopher Meloni ended those attacks and created enough fear among them to keep overt racist attacks at a distance. Durocher prophetically reminded the players that they played as a protected oligopoly. When the color line broke, a whole generation of talented, driven and skilled Negro players would compete for their jobs. A prophecy, for good and bad, that modern rosters of professional teams prove.
Durocher, however, is suspended for a year when he has an affair, and the Catholic Youth Organization condemns him. Facing a CYO boycott, the baseball commissioner suspends Durocher. Durocher’s replacement, the burnt out and ineffectual Burt Shotton is utterly incapable of standing up for Robinson. Robinson is stranded alone in the clubhouse while teammates lead by pitcher Fritz Ostermueller harass and undercut Robinson.
Yet slowly Robinson’s skill, ferocious drive to win and dignity win over a few players. One actually invites Robinson to start taking showers with the team in a very funny awkward scene.
His team does not support him; his manager is ineffectual and while slowly winning some players and fans, the worst remains. Branch is called by owners of teams, especially Cincinnati, who demand the Dodgers not play Robinson against them. Rickey does not back down and suggests the other teams forfeit.
The movie reaches its moral and critical center when the team plays Philadelphia. Ben Chapman, played with stunning guile and meanness by Alan Tudyk , stands at the dugout and baits and screams “nigger, nigger, nigger.” The whole theater reacts in discomfort at this casual stilleto striek. Chapman abuses Robinson and taunts Robinson’s quiet teammates with a moral ugliness that is real and effective. Here and only here do we see the sheer physical and mental anguish and toll it takes upon Robinson’s herculean dignity. In real life he kept this inside and at home.
The Philly manager just explains that players all each other “wops” and “kikes< during the game. Chapman claims its all in good fun. It is not, he and everyone else knows it especially Robinson’s shamed teammates who do not support him. The cowardice of his teammates and ineffectual manager allow it to continue. Rickey intervenes and forces baseball to act and get a public apology.
The endless moral and mental abuse slowly starts to awaken some of his teammates. Several had asked to be traded by Rickey and in one case he accommodates them sending him to “Pittsburgh!!” of all places.
But Pee Wee Reese (well played by Lucas Black), southerner, veteran, good boy, basically decent man, does not know what to do. All he wants to do is “Play the game.” “Just play the game.” He wished the symbolic power would go away, but it is not longer just a game. It has become a morality play for the whole nation and the whole nation’s identity. Reese and others are asked to live up to the code of the game and cover their teammates back.
At Cincinnati, a very southern and hostile town, Reese walks and puts his arm around Robinson as a gesture of solidarity before the city and Reese’s own relatives. At one level Robinson cannot understand it, but to Reese and to many others, it marks one small step, steps we are still taking each day. Reese himself had ultimately been pushed over the line by admiration for Robinson’s play and Robinson’s own support of players. Reese knows his own anger at how the Philly manager had treated Robinson, but he is also angry at himself and the team for breaking the code and not supporting their own teammate.
The movie works well to remind us again of where we come from and how powerful sports can be for our collective identity. It also reminds us of how hard and lonely and ugly it can be to be a true pathfinder. We understand what so many black professionals understand that they must be better than their white peers just to be considered equal. At some points the inwardness of Robinson hides the full cost. His Spartan dignity and devotion to his wife and winning cover much of the sorrow and pain. But in real life Robinson died at the age of 52 of a heart attack, long before he should. Perhaps the internal cost of the external hatred he endured with so much self-possession.
42 does miss how deeply woven the Jackie Robinson story is into the fabric of the times. Truman integrated the army. Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial. Paul Robeson stalked the stages, and Thurgood Marshall and the NCAA pushed up the intensity of their efforts in the south. Robinson mattered not just to baseball, but as an unavoidable and daily reminder that change challenged America’s definition of itself in the daily sports stage where many Americans defined themselves.
America’s self-narrative depends profoundly upon its ideal of meritocracy. Sports enthrall us because it is played out drama in real time with no certainty and because it is brutally meritocratic. Elite sports exposes incompetence with glaring harshness. Money and fame and even last year’s success does not matter. All that matters is how you compete and contribute to winning. Only the best or the ones that fit into a winning team concept succeed and flourish.
Robinson opened an arena where as Leo Durocher predicted an entire generation of elite trained and hungry black athletes were waiting to come and take protected white players jobs. You can even spot the modern counter argument by one sportscaster that Negro players have inherent physical advantages that make them perfect for sports. A Negro’s very success in sports becomes a confirmation of their lack of status in other realms. Racism and the race card plays both ways in many games as trump and counter-trump
Robinson displayed extraordinary grace and self-discipline and the courage not to fight back under ugly and grueling conditions. Yet just as the black soldiers earned the grudging respect and admiration of their fellow soldiers in World War II, Robinson earned the respect of his teammates not just with his skill but his courage and his focused fury on the base paths.
The true accomplishment of these sports narratives lies in something deeper and more human. In a private conversation Robinson asks Rickey about why Rickey did this. Robinson refuses to accept the normal economic answers. Rickey talks of his own failure to protect and help succeed a young talented black player in his early coaching days. Then he speaks of the great and vital success of Robinson. He watched a young sandlot boy bend over and rub his hands in dirt just like Robinson. He looked at Robinson and said, there it is “a white boy wants to be like a black man.”