Every time Hollywood releases another civil rights sports movie, it calls to mind comedian Bill Burr’s funny bit about white guilt, because audiences have been inundated with so many of these films recently that they’ve begun to lose the potency of their message. Of course, if you are going to make another civil rights sports movie, the story of Jackie Robinson is pretty much the definitive version, so it’s surprising that only one other film (“The Jackie Robinson Story”) has been made on the subject, and that movie starred the famous baseball player as himself. It’s probably because no matter how inspiring Robinson’s tale may be, he’s not a particularly interesting figure apart from his contribution to history, and that’s something that director Brian Helgeland constantly wrestles with in “42.”
Unlike most biopics, the film only covers three years of Robinson’s life, beginning in 1945 when he was still playing in the Negro league after serving in World War II. Spring training has just begun and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has decided to make the bold move to break the color line and bring the first black player into the National League. Initially assigned to the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) must overcome immense racism from both the fans and his teammates, much to the concern of his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and black sports journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who’s aware that there’s much more at stake than Jackie realizes. But instead of lashing out against his detractors like everyone is expecting, Robinson lets his talent do the talking on the baseball field, eventually earning a spot with the Dodgers and leading them to the pennant in his first year.