Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
This week in Major League Baseball was Jackie Robinson Day. This is when Commissioner Bud Selig honors the man who broke the color line in 1947 and pats MLB on the back for being “a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.” It’s possible to appreciate that Selig honors one of the 20th Century’s great anti-racist heroes. It’s also possible, out of respect for Jackie Robinson, to resent the hell out of it.
Ignored on Jackie Robinson Day are baseball’s decades of racism before Jackie broke the color line. Ignored are Robinson’s own critiques of baseball’s bigoted front office hiring policies. Ignored is the continuance of the racism that surrounds the game in 2013. Ignored is the fact that today in Arizona, Latino players live in fear of being stopped by police for not having their papers in order.
The recent film 42 about Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues shares this contradiction. I can certainly understand why many people I respect love this film. I can understand why a teacher I know thinks it’s a great primer for young people who don’t know Jackie’s story. I understand why, given the high production values and loving depictions, Jackie Robinson’s family has been outspoken in their appreciation. But I didn’t like it, and with all respect, I want to make the case that I don’t believe Jackie Robinson would have liked it either.
Early in the film, Jackie Robinson, played by newcomer Chadwick Boseman, says, "I don't think it matters what I believe. Only what I do." Unfortunately that quote is like a guiding compass for all that follows. The filmmakers don't seem to care what Robinson—a deeply political human being—believed either. Instead 42 rests on the classical Hollywood formula of “Heroic individual sees obstacle. Obstacle is overcome. The End.” That works for Die Hard or American Pie. It doesn’t work for a story about an individual deeply immersed and affected by the grand social movements and events of his time. Jackie Robinson's experience was shaped by the Dixiecrats who ruled his Georgia birthplace, the mass struggles of the 1930s, World War II, the anti-communist witch-hunts and later the Civil Rights and Black Freedom struggles. To tell his tale as one of individual triumph through his singular greatness is to not tell the story at all.
This is particularly ironic since Jackie Robinson spent the last years of his life in a grueling fight against his own mythos. He hated that his tribulations from the 1940s were used to sell a story about an individualistic, Booker T. Washington approach to fighting racism.
As he said in a speech, “All these guys who were saying that we've got it made through athletics, it's just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we've got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people—not by what happens as an individual, so I merely tell these youngsters when I go out: certainly I've had opportunities that they haven't had, but because I've had these opportunities doesn't mean that I've forgotten.”