If, like this correspondent, you’re not a baseball fan, the number 42 is first and foremost the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, according to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its myriad sequels. But the late Douglas Adams did not arrive at this number randomly, it seems. It shows up as mystically or mathematically significant all over the place, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to the Kabbalah to the Book of Revelation. In math it has all sorts of properties that sound like complete gobbledegook to me, but apparently meant something to mathematician/kid-lit author Lewis Carroll, who peppered his writings with the number. There are 42 US gallons in a barrel of oil, 42 kilometers in a marathon, 42 laws in the game of cricket and so on and on and on.
But if you are a baseball fan, 42 signifies only one thing: the jersey worn by the first black man to play in the Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson. And it is for you that the movie 42 was made – but not you exclusively, for although there’s an awful lot of baseball being played in Brian Helgeland’s Robinson biopic, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about the relentless presence of racism in mid-20th-century America, and how the moment was right, with black troops coming home from having helped whup the Fuehrer, for that harsh reality to start changing, a little bit at a time.
With perhaps the exception of folks (and sadly, there are still a few of them among us) who don’t see anything wrong with slinging the N-word around to humiliate or antagonize black people, anybody can like this movie – provided that they don’t insist on snark and irony as essential components of modern cinematic storytelling. For 42 is as snarkless and old-fashioned a bit of moviemaking as I have seen in years uncounted. It really could have been made in 1946 or ’47, when it’s set. Bleep out the racist taunts, and it’s wholesome and moralistic and as American as apple pie – or baseball itself.
There’s no suggestion, for instance, that lovebirds Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) and Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) ever once had a marital tiff, or that Jackie was ever tempted by the philandering opportunities widely available to a sports superstar on the road. Contrast that with Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), whose affair with a Hollywood starlet is so blatant that he gets bounced from his post as Dodgers manager at the outset of the critical year when Robinson is admitted to the team. If I can fault 42, it’s on the basis of being unmitigated hagiography, depicting as lily-white a black person, morally speaking, as ever stole a base or three. To find shades of grey here, one must look to the supporting characters.