04/12/2013 09:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ReThink Review: 42 -- Which Side of History Are You On?

42: the True Story of an American Legend is about Jackie Robinson, a four-sport phenom from UCLA who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 and became the first African-American baseball player to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era. The danger of making a movie about a pioneer, hero, and legend like Robinson is the urge to whitewash (no pun intended) any of the controversial aspects of his life to protect his saintly status. And that's mostly what 42 does, while also portraying the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, as the saint behind the saint. But while there's a lot in 42 that's corny, predictable, and almost Disney-ish, I'll admit that I got choked up a few times, because apparently, I get moved watching people learning not to be racists. Watch the trailer for 42 below.

The film mostly follows the period when Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) brings Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) into the Dodgers' system to boost ticket sales, first sending Robinson to the Dodgers' Montreal farm club before eventually bringing him to Brooklyn. Nicole Beharie plays Robinson's angelic, impeccably-dressed wife Rachel, and the cast is rounded out by T.R. Knight as Rickey's assistant, Andre Holland as a reporter following Robinson, John McGinley as the Dodgers' announcer, Christopher Meloni as the Dodgers' coach, and Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Brad Beyer, Jesse Luken, Derek Phillips, and others as Dodgers players with varying levels of prejudice.

Since Robinson went on to be a great baseball player and you might've noticed that black people have gone on to do pretty well in professional sports, 42 is an inherently predictable, feel-good movie, but without many surprises other than how jarring it is to see just how racist America was less than 70 years ago, where Robinson was constantly jeered, threatened, targeted by other players, turned away from hotels, and had other teams refuse to play.

Boseman does a good job as Robinson, but since the movie doesn't delve much into Robinson's inner thoughts and his orders were to play hard, swallow the abuse, and never retaliate, the character doesn't develop much. Ford gets almost equal screen time, but Rickey is also a one-note character, showing up regularly to growl some wisdom or encourage Robinson to be strong. And if you ever don't know what you're supposed to be feeling, the film's overly-dramatic score will set you straight.

But 42 is less about how these two men changed than about the way others changed because of them, drawing multiple parallels between then and now while putting a lump in my throat multiple times. There's something beautiful about watching black fans watching Robinson, so filled with hope and pride as they hang on his every move and are inspired by something they never thought they'd see in their lifetimes. When you contrast that with the hatred issuing from the racist fans, I couldn't help thinking of Barack Obama's election in 2008 and how democrats and minorities saw it as an inspirational milestone while republicans saw it as a sign of the apocalypse. Arguments that a black player will disrupt team cohesion are just like what we heard about gays in the military, and when the movie's most racist character claims that an integrated baseball "ain't the America I know" and that his bigoted rants are simply "defending baseball", it's hard not to hear the echoes of gay marriage opponents.

But what was the most stirring for me about 42 wasn't watching Robinson show up his detractors, it was seeing his teammates and others triumph over their own prejudices. Most people who were racists in 1947 weren't simply ignorant jerks like they are now, but people who had grown up in a world where racial equality wasn't even imaginable. Maybe conservatives who see 42 will realize that sometimes a previously unimaginable shift is for the better, and they won't want to be left behind like the racists in 42. Despite its flaws, 42 is a great illustration of a moment where America was given the choice between the right and wrong side of history, and by and large, we chose correctly.

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