Jackie Robinson speaks before the House Un-American Activities Committee, July 18, 1949. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)
I'm both excited and apprehensive about the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. I'm excited because any high-profile film and attendant discussion about the man Martin Luther King, Jr., called "a freedom rider before freedom rides" should be a positive. I'm excited because the film might stir people to read brilliant books like Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment, Chris Lamb's Blackout and Arnold Rampersand's Jackie Robinson: A Biography. I'm apprehensive because we know what Hollywood does to history. It's not unlike what a monster truck does to a ferret: leaving it flattened and unrecognizable with all its sharp teeth knocked out. Historical movies about sports and the triumph over racism are often even worse. Films like Glory Road or Remember the Titans follow the s-i-c formula: segregation, integration, celebration. In a biopic of the man who broke baseball's color barrier, that formula would be particularly ironic since Jackie Robinson was doubting his own integrationist belief in the better angels of this country at the end of his life.
I will watch 42 with an open mind. However, here in advance are five aspects of Jackie Robinson's tumultuous, politically complicated life story I fear won't make the film's final cut.
1. Branch Rickey was no saint. Based upon previews, it certainly appears that the hero of 42 will be not only Jackie Robinson, but Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey played by Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. Yet Rickey, while brave in bringing Robinson to the majors, hopefully will not be exempt from criticism. He is what Melissa Harris-Perry would call "an imperfect ally." Rickey was responsible for Robinson's entry in the majors. He also bears a great deal of weight for the implosion of the Negro Leagues, after Robinson made his debut in 1947.
The Negro Leagues weren't just a place of thwarted ambitions for the country's best African American players. They were also the largest national black-owned business in the country. Black owners, bookkeepers, trainers, coaches, and groundspeople were all part of what was a source of economic power, pride and self-sufficiency. Yet Rickey was ruthless in his dealings with Negro League owners, publicly claiming no obligation to compensate teams for signing away their talent. That became the pattern as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and many more were signed out of the Negro Leagues and this infrastructure of black economic power rotted away, creating a racial power imbalance in sports that persists to this day. Rickey's pilfering, layered with a public campaign of denigration, set the Negro Leagues on the road to ruin.
Rickey was also, as he said proudly, "no bleeding heart." He saw the economic advantage of showcasing, as Jackie Robinson said himself, "a patient black freak" for mass consumption. In fact, Rickey had far more public concern and condemnation for how black Americans would respond to Robinson than the reaction of white Americans. As he said at a mass meeting of New York's "respectable" black community, "The one enemy most likely to ruin [Robinson's] success are the Negro people themselves. You'll hold Jackie Robinson days, and Jackie Robinson nights. You'll get drunk. You'll fight. You'll be arrested. You'll wine and dine the player until he is fat and futile. You'll [turn him into] a national comedy and ultimate tragedy." The audience applauded. I'd love to see the film dramatize this scene and educate people about pre-civil rights class tensions within the black community. I'm not hopeful.