42: Right Movie, Wrong Perspective

There are some advantages in life when it comes to procrastination. One of those advantages extends to seeing movies long after they’ve been released. Seeing a movie in theaters six weeks after it opened guarantees you two things: 1) there’s a good chance there won’t be many people in the theater 2) you have about a 95% chance of getting a good seat.

So after taking my time seeing the movie “42” I finally watched it a week ago, and while there were certainly enjoyable parts of the film, it left me wanting more. It’s like going to a restaurant and only having money to buy a couple of appetizers, but you really wanted the steak entree. At the end of your meal, you may be full, but not necessarily satisfied. I felt the same way towards “42.” Good attempt, but it wasn’t the entree I was hoping for.

“42” is the story of major league baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson. Robinson is widely recognized around this time of year for the hell he had to put up with for integrating America’s pastime. One can’t even begin to imagine the immense pressure that was on Jackie’s shoulders. He wasn’t just representing himself out there, he was representing a race of people for better or worse, and if he failed, the reverberations would be felt far beyond the field.

When “42” starts we see Branch Rickey — the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers — sitting in his office with his aides at his side. It is here we see Branch Rickey speak on the possibility of bringing in a black ballplayer. This is significant that the movie begins with Branch Rickey and not Jackie. Though the story may be Jackie’s, we see it through the prism of Branch Rickey’s eyes.

Later in that opening scene, while trying to determine which black ballplayer currently playing in the Negro Leagues they will call up, they come to Robinson’s name. One of Branch’s aides brings up the fact that Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to sit at the back of the bus. Instead of depicting that scene, Director Brian Helgeland instead shows Rickey in his office expressing admiration towards Jackie’s stance.

Throughout the movie we see the different obstacles Jackie must go through to be accepted. From having to leave his home in the middle of the night for fear of it being bombed, to being berated by fans and opposing coaches, to gradually winning the acceptance and admiration of his white teammates. Some of it’s particularly moving as a harsh reminder of America’s not too distant past.

Ultimately though, I left the film wanting to know more about Jackie Robinson. Things such as where was he from? How did he grow up? Even things like how he met his wife are startlingly absent in this film. While I do understand the time limits when filming a movie, “42” does a poor job of fleshing out Robinson’s character beyond that of an American icon. Yes, we know he integrated the game, but why did he even choose baseball to begin with? What types of relationships did he develop while in the Negro Leagues? What about how he couldn’t even get work in the majors after he retired?

All these things are relevant, but sadly are left out. Jackie Robinson is more folk hero than a living, breathing, man whose character flaws and back story are never truly revealed in “42.” That type of perspective makes for a real good appetizer, but not quite a full meal.

Reed Between The Lines

Last Tuesday I caught two episodes of the new orignial BET series Reed Between The Lines. It looks pretty promising from what I’ve seen so far.

First, I like the emphasis on black love and the fact that Alex and Carla Reed (portrayed by Malcolm Jamal-Warner and Tracee Ellis Ross), are a married couple with a blended family. Sadly, there really aren’t too many images of African-American family life on television and I definitely applaud BET for giving us something other than mindless rap videos and sitcoms from 2002.

This show does have some remnants of The Cosbys in it, even beyond the fact that Malcolm Jamal-Warner is linked to both. The fact that Alex and Carla Reed represent a well educated black middle class couple (both hold jobs that would require a Master’s degree) is powerful indeed. He is a stay at home NYU professor and she a therapist who somehow manage to make time for each other while juggling three kids and everything else that comes between. Too often we rarely see successful black married couples on television, but this show at least attempts to portray something sorely lacking in today’s television landscape.

In the show’s second episode that premiered last week, it threw me for a bit of a loop, and I’m sure it did many viewers as well. The episode entitled, “Let’s Talk About Daddy’s Little Girl,” started with Carla and Alex’s daughter Alexis, being dropped home by a white camp counselor who said she didn’t get along well with the other kids. He even went so far to use the term ‘scary’ to describe their daughter. Naturally, I thought, “this dude just messed up bigtime.” As one would expect, Alex and Carla looked visibly upset and the familiar story pattern would be the white counselor showing some insensitivity toward their daughter based solely on her race. Only in this case, it was Alex and Carla who proved to be wrong with their own daughter. As they and the viewers would find out, Alexis’ bad behavior toward the other kids was not so much a result of her being unfairly picked out, as it was her being spoiled by her family and expecting people to wait on her hand and foot. In essence, the episode teaches that just because something may appear insensitive or mildly racist at first, that isn’t always the case and we have to be sure to look at all angles of a situation before jumping to conclusions.

Reed Between The Lines looks promising and I look forward to seeing how the shows and series progresses. The fact that Malcolm Jamal-Warner and Tracee Ross are both wearing their producer hats on this project shows that they have a vested interest in the types of characters, themes and story-lines that play out through the season. I’m definitely looking forward to this show.