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The Man behind the Legend

By Patrick Dougherty and Ty Souders, comment by Billy Oppenheimer

[1] The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) and 42 (2012) both take a detailed look at the legendary story of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. However, made sixty-three years apart, each serves a much different need related to the desires of their targeted audience. While both films are based on the same topic, when viewed side by side they in fact tell a very different tale. The 1950 The Jackie Robinson Story takes a documentary-like approach, providing the viewer with straightforward facts, avoiding much of the Hollywood fluff. The audience sees Jackie grow up before their eyes, learns the reasons behind leaving college and entering the military, and is provided detailed accounts about many of the racist acts and verbal assaults he had to deal with during his first two seasons. This film functions much differently than 42 , which seemingly has an entirely different agenda. The purpose of 42 is explicitly stated in the title as the "true story of an American legend." This legendary figure is thus more than a simple human being and does not possess the traditional traits of the audience, who are mere mortals. Rather, he can rise above even the most brutal attacks to succeed in a game and change a culture. Yet the film purposely leaves out his early life, his mother and siblings, and virtually everything that makes him human so that the audience is unable to fully sympathize with his struggles. Thus, the audience learns of the events that ultimately create the legend of Jackie Robinson but are left yearning for more when it comes to the more personal, human aspects of his life.

[2] One of the most prominent aspects present in The Jackie Robinson Story that is left out of the 2012 42 is the personal reasons behind many of Jackie's life decisions. Leaving college seems to stick out the most. There is a minute-long scene dedicated to the topic that allows the audience to understand explicitly why the decision is being made. He explains his desire to marry Rachel and, on a deeper level, explains he that does not see any point for a black man to have a degree. While speaking to Mack he says, "What good will a degree do me? They aren't hiring colored football coaches, at least not our color anyway." The scene continues, and Jackie points out the fact that Mack has a college degree and is forced to clean streets at night. Mack solemnly responds with "it may not be a great job, but it's a steady one." These inner thoughts are exactly the things the audience of a 1950s film would not otherwise be privileged to hear. There is no Twitter of Facebook where athletes can say what's on their minds at all hours of the night. This is not even the type of story that would make the news in the 50s because it is about a colored person and most of the newspapers did not bother to print stories about their struggles.

[3] 42 chose to focus on strictly the 1945-1947 years of Jackie's life. While there are references to his early life by other characters, actor Chadwick Boseman does not have many lines regarding the subject. In a film in which the "legend" of Robinson is the topic rather than simply his story, it is not hard to see why these aspects would be left out. Helgeland was faced with the question, does a 2013 audience want to hear the racial reasons Jackie Robinson leaves a prestigious university with only one semester to go? The answer for him was a firm "no." Instead, he realized that he must stick to the theme of the film and focus on what makes Jackie a larger than life character in real American history. Judging that the 1950s film was one of the only reel portrayals of the story, he focused on just the events that turned Jackie into the hero whose number is retired by all of baseball. (see comment by Billy Oppenheimer)

[4] Another piece of the story that is left out of 42 involves details of Jackie's military career. The military time is set up in The Jackie Robinson Story as a positive. Jackie is upset that he gets continually rejected from college coaching positions because of his skin color. When he finally receives an employment letter, it is one from the United States Army explaining that he has been drafted into the service during World War II. The only details given about his time in the Army comes from a letter Rachel reads to a co-worker. Viewers understand he has become an officer and some sort of athletic director for an Army sports team. Once again, for an audience in the 1950s this would not be information to which they necessarily had access. There was likely no news coverage of it and only simple word-of-mouth accounts that certainly would not have reached a national audience. This film functioned much like a webpage does today and had to at least highlight all of the pieces of Jackie's life, even if it was only a brief snippet in the film.

[5] 42 covers Jackie's military career but does so in a much different manner. While The Jackie Robinson Story's coverage was certainly brief, 42's was even shorter. The only time we hear of his time in uniform is a short comment from Branch Rickey to Harold about Jackie's court-martial for standing up to a white soldier who told him to move to the back. Highlighting only this specific event and not the fact Jackie was an officer or led many of the Army's athletic teams aligns with Hegeland's theme. He uses only the most famous portion that came out of Jackie's time in the military and ignores other aspects that are not important to the creation of the legend. Yet these were immensely important in the maturation of the person who eventually wore the number 42.

[6] Racism in the two films differs greatly because of the time separating the two. The Jackie Robinson Story was filmed before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Movement left their marks on American society. On the other hand, 42 exists in an American culture that has become hypersensitive to all issues of racism, sexism, or homosexuality. It is because of this that we are able to clearly see the two distinct ways that racism is shown in each film. Each film frames the racism that Jackie faced during his first two seasons by using words or symbols that have a very strong impact on their respective audiences.

[7] In The Jackie Robinson Story, Jackie encounters racism that would have been very apparent to a 1950s audience. Toward the end of the film, the movie plays a montage of scenes that show Jackie encountering various forms of racism during his first season as a Dodger. At a game in Syracuse, a fan taunts Jackie by throwing a black cat onto the field and yelling "What are you doing on a white man's field?" Next, the montage shows opposing teams harassing Jackie by first pulling out a shoe-shine kit and then a watermelon. These three stereotypes would have been very familiar to the 1950s audiences. Secondly, the film shows a brief scene involving three men whom the audience is supposed to recognize as members of the KKK. The three men talk about "paying Jackie a visit" after the game to make sure he doesn't play again. Again, the KKK would have been close to the forefront of the minds of Americans in 1950. Hate crimes and Klan activity was still occurring in the country, particularly in the South. A 1950s audience would have easily recognized the suggested violence of the three KKK members' conversation. During The Jackie Robinson Story, the audience is not shown how much the racism effects Jackie. Even the montage of racist acts, which cuts to scenes of Jackie's face cringing, does not fully capture the hurt that Jackie must have endured. Instead, Jackie seems to draw his strength from those who support him, namely Rachel and Branch Rickey, as most people would do in trying times.

[8] The 42 film portrays racism in a very different light, however. The film does not use the traditional stereotype images that The Jackie Robinson Story uses, nor does it have any hints of Klan activity. Instead, the film focuses most of its portrayal of racism around the use of the word "nigger." The scene that stands out the most as an example of the blatant racism faced by Jackie is Phillies' manager Ben Chapman's verbal assault while he is at bat. In this short scene, Chapman uses the word "nigger" over a dozen times. It is clear that the word is supposed to evoke a strong feeling of disgust from today's audience. This word has become very taboo and is unanimously accepted as not polite to say in conversation. In 1947, use of this word was still popular, and it was said often. Today, however, it has been almost totally eliminated from common conversation. The use of this highly offensive word is designed to shock the audience and point out the sting of the racism that Jackie experienced during the inaugural season.

[9] In 42 we are meant to see just how much Jackie is suffering under the enormous burden that he has taken up. Not only this, but too often we see him suffering alone or in silence. After Jackie endures the horrible taunting by Chapman, he storms to the tunnel behind the dugout and smashes a bat in rage and agony. Here Helgeland is showing us a classic scene of a hero suffering alone. No one can fully understand the pain the hero feels, and the hero knows it is he, and he alone, who must bear the burden. 42 attempts to portray Jackie as a man who could deal with racism because he was larger than life.

Comments

Billy Oppenheimer 4/4/16

I think Pat and Ty are right that many of the decisions Helgeland made in making this film were to paint Robinson as a larger than life figure, but I wouldn't agree that it was the focus of every aspect. There was a clear and conscious decision to focus on Jackie and Rachel's relationship. I found that Jackie and Rachel had been engaged for five years, agreeing not to get married until Jackie had a steady job. It is interesting that in the film, the first thing Jackie does after his initial meeting with Rickey is call Rachel and the two marry shortly thereafter. The first thing on his mind is not "I am going to be the first African American to play professional baseball," but, rather, "Now I can finally marry Rachel." There is something very human about Jackie's desire to be with the woman he loved more so than yearning to become some great hero that broke down the color barriers. In that way, he becomes more relatable to viewers, which I think is what Helgeland wanted to achieve.