Odie Henderson: Well, Mr. Boone, once again, we’re engaging in a Black Man Talk. After American Gangstas, Tyler Perry, and Django Unchained,
we’re now setting our sights on the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. This
time, however, the talk is being conducted live via Internet Chat. Let’s
get this party started.
Steven Boone: Odie, among other great things, you invented the term “lookeehere
moment.” You never gave me a precise definition, just plenty of
illustrative anecdotes, but I’ll take a crack at it: The lookeehere moment is
that instance in which a stressed-out African-American male succumbs to
pressures of (usually coded, passive-aggressive) racism and… snaps. 42 felt
like a suspense thriller based around whether or when Jackie Robinson is going
to have a colossal lookeehere moment. “Now, lookeehere, umpire….!”
What do you think?
Odie: That’s a good definition of the lookeehere. If I were to venture a
definition, I’d say it’s the Black version of the moment where Popeye finally
decides to stop taking shit and eat that can of spinach. I wondered if 42 would
allow Robinson to have his lookeehere moment, or if it was going to treat his
abuse as some form of Noble Negritude.
I should note that the real Robinson does NOT get a moment of genuine
anger in The Jackie Robinson Story, the 1950 version of the timeframe 42
covers. I’d like to think it was because Robinson was not a seasoned actor, but
it’s probably because that moment would have been too realistic for White
audiences to deal with back in the halcyon days of Father Knows Best.
Steven: Absolutely. They weren’t even quite ready for Sidney Poitier. (Btw, A Patch of Blue employs similar suspense around the prospect of miscegenation.
That movie’s kissing scene stopped my heart.)
Well, I think it’s safe to say we both dug this movie, but why? It is
so damn corny. It seems too cornball for even the likes of Ron Howard and Ed
“ante up and kick in” Zwick. Why does this film work so well?
Odie: Chris Rock once said that Black folks will know we’ve truly overcome
when we’re allowed to fuck up just like White folks do. That is, the individual
will get blamed rather than the entire race. Cinematically, I think we’ll know
when a Black character is given a corny-ass, pure Americana treatment in a
Watching 42, I felt that this was our very own cornpone treatment—and
dare I say those corny movies like Pride of the Yankees are damned
effective–and I loved it for that reason. We may not have overcome on the
screen, but for a brief moment, I saw the old movies I loved get colorized.
Finally, a bone of equality thrown our way. The love story is corny, the sports
movie is corny, the gruff mentor is a cliché, etc. This can describe the
majority of movies of this ilk.
And those exact reasons are why I love movies like this. We’re asked
to love and suffer with Jackie because he wants the American Dream, which is
here symbolized by Baseball. Not because pursuing the dream is a privilege, but because it’s a right.
Steven: I know what you mean, re: the purposeful corniness. George Lucas
employed some of that rationale for his long-gestating film about the Tuskeegee
Airmen, Red Tails. He said it was the kind of film you’d see all the time
during Ho’wood’s Golden Era, just, as you put it, colorized.
Odie: It’s about damn time. Those movies endure.
Steven: I think Tyler Perry, for better or worse, is doing some of that work,
Odie: Perry’s problem, as we’ve discussed before, is that he’s stapled to
Jesus. If he had the chops of Cecil B. DeMille, he could corner the market on
Steven: I could see him doing St. Louis Blues. I’ll never forget that scene
where Nat King Cole as Handy regains his sight at the keyboard, thanks to his
faith in Jesus. (If I’m remembering it right.)
Odie: Perry wouldn’t be able to resist having Madea on top of Nat’s piano
singing “Makin’ Whoopee.”
Odie: Were you surprised by the time devoted to the love story in this film?
Ruby Dee played Robinson’s wife, Rachel, in The Jackie Robinson Story, and
while she wasn’t completely ignored, I felt Brian Helgeland wanted to give
equal time to the struggle and the strength behind it. The two leads (Chadwick
Boseman and Nicole Beharie) have amazing chemistry. I loved the looks they gave
each other. This is the most credible Black romance I’ve seen in years.
Steven: Yes, it was like a tonic. Black love is so toxic in American mainstream movies.
The fact that I was so shocked to see a Black couple so effortlessly devoted to
each other onscreen is sad. I see it in real life. Why have I so rarely seen it
up there on the screen?
Odie: I think it still terrifies some viewers. We’re too conditioned to
onscreen broken families, trifling men and gold diggers. Regular Black love is
“unrealistic,” to use a word I’ve heard regarding the Robinsons’
relationship in this film.
Steven: Well, you know me. I see a perfectly correlative relationship between
Ho’wood history and American street reality. We have been living out the images
of ourselves for a long time. Helgeland is doing a lot of triage on that there.
His script is quietly subversive in ways similar to Mann’s Ali.
Odie: The scene I can’t get out of my head is when Alan Tudyk’s Ben Chapman
(the coach of the Phillies) keeps taunting Robinson at the plate. Brian Helgeland
lets that play out for an eternity, with Tudyk saying “nigger” enough
times to earn him a lifetime contract at Death Row Records. Tudyk sings it,
plays on the word, does a stand-up routine with racist Black jokes,
practically. He got on my nerves so much I was ready for a lookeehere moment.
Helgeland plays on that tension, and then Rachel Robinson says, “Look at
me. Please look at me.” She is telepathically willing Jackie to turn to
his soulmate, to lean on her for strength.
Steven: It’s fucking beautiful.
I saw you rocking in your seat during Tudyk’s taunting.
Odie: Oh, had I been in less polite company, I would have yelled out
“KICK HIS ASS, JACKIE!” The Warner Bros. logo would have fallen off
the screening room door.
Steven: Hahaha. I do wish, as I shout-whispered to you in the screening room,
that Steven Spielberg had directed Helgeland’s crackerjack script. But it would
have been TOO overpowering. Or Sam Raimi (whose baseball scenes in For Love
of the Game snap, crackle, and pop). But Helgeland does a decent Spielberg
imitation, that creeping camera, the shafts of light.
Odie: The cinematography does an excellent job of setting mood with light
and shadow. Don Burgess’ lighting brings us closer to the internal acting being
done by Boseman—you can see him working out his game plan/side hustle at all
times. Unfortunately, that damn score by Mark Isham overshadows some finely
underplayed moments. In addition to Spielberg, Helgeland is also channeling
Barry Levinson, whose The Natural is clearly one of his influences. Baseball is
like church, and most baseball movies aim to give some form of religious
experience. Randy Newman’s score in that film is beautiful and just as
bombastic as Isham’s, but is applied with a smaller trowel.
Agreed. If the studio has any mercy, they should at least release a
cut of the film on Blu-ray minus the score. I guarantee you, this is far more
intense and poetic film without that absolutely unnecessary weep music.
Odie: I liked what you said about the score being “more oppressive than
Steven: At least during Jim Crow there was some variety.
But, back to that almost-lookeehere moment on the field. Helgeland doesn’t
just stop there. He follows Jackie into the clubhouse hallway, where he has a
private breakdown. The residual sunlight coming down from the field is eerie,
heavenly, theatrical. It’s a beautiful theatrical moment, and then Harrison
Ford steps in, as Jackie’s mentor, and makes it iconic. This is like the Angels
in America of racism, for that moment.
Odie: The claustrophobic staging is a wise choice. The narrow proximity of
the hallway walls juxtaposed against the sunlight, that literal light at the
end of the tunnel. Ford steps in, and rather than turn this into some kind of
“Great White Father” moment, Helgeland’s script lets Robinson have
the first and last words. “NO!” he immediately tells Rickey as he
tries to approach him. 42 lets him have this moment without immediate response
from his boss.
Speaking of Indiana Jones, Mr. Ford turns in an excellent supporting
performance here. I bought his Branch Rickey, and even more so, how the film
uses him almost as a reverse Sidekick Negro. This is Branch Rickey’s story too,
but rather than depict him as some saint passing out crumbs of bread to the
cullud folks, it represents him as a man whose distaste for injustice ran
parallel to his business acumen. The Sidekick Negro teaches the White
characters Soul™ to help them loosen up. Branch Rickey does the opposite,
teaching Robinson to tighten up by harnessing the power of the lookeehere
moment into a vengeful vanquishing on the field of sports battle. As Black Bart
says in Blazing Saddles, “Once you establish yo’self, they got to accept
Steven: Yes, Branch Rickey here is no Father, just a friend. He starts off
invoking the power of the green, like Oskar Schindler, but he doesn’t proceed
down the typical savior path. Helgeland is careful to make it clear that Rickey
is only doing what everybody should be doing, and which he failed to do out of
fear when he was younger: Play fair. The movie’s white male characters are fun
to watch. They’re all wrestling with their beliefs and trying to figure out
what a man is in this new context. They are starting to see that siding with
racists is basically toadying for bullies.
Odie: Helgeland clearly has no time for the systemic idiocy of the Brooklyn
Dodgers teammates’ racism. The speech he gives to Christopher Meloni (one of my
favorite actors) is a wicked slap in the face. Meloni tells his players that
Jackie’s the first one–and not the last. They’re coming, they’re good, and
since they haven’t been lulled into a comfortable, assumed position of
privilege, they’re HUNGRY. They’re coming, and they’re better than you lazy
bums are, so I’d be worried about being good enough to win rather than your
teammate’s skin color.
That was an “Odie woulda shouted AMEN in the Ghetto Theater”
Steven: A lot of this movie’s charm and power comes from small moments between Jackie
and his teammates. These aren’t extensively drawn characters, but they are so
well cast, seeming not at all like actors slipping on the shoes of historical
figures. My favorite is Lucas Black, the kid from Sling Blade, as Pee Wee
Reese. Black is one of the most likeable American screen actors we rarely see.
He’s perfect to play the one guy brave enough to embrace Jackie in front of a
hostile, racist crowd. That moment, and an earlier moment where another
teammate simply patted Jackie on the shoulder, sucker-punched me with emotion.
Odie: The film treats these moments with a subtle beauty (at least until
Mark Isham shows up with that hyperactive orchestra). I agree the team is well
cast, with Hamish Linklater, the brother from The New Adventures of Old
Christine, and Lucas Black as stand-outs. All the actors make credible
ballplayers, actually. Helgeland puts us right into the action, and his mythic
camera angles of Robinson stealing and sliding into bases are suitably
Lest we forget Andre Holland, who plays real-life Black sportswriter
Wendell Smith. Helgeland botches his early narration by having him use
“African-American” (Black folks in 1947 would have asked “What
the hell is that?”), but he makes a good sidekick for Robinson. Having
Robinson relate to both Black and White characters was so refreshing I wanted
to cry. Equal time is given to both worlds, something that should be normal in
movies but rarely is.
Steven: The exchanges between Holland and Robinson seemed so lifeless to me,
though. The tensions and sympathies were there in the script, I feel, but their
moments together were where I definitely felt the need for a post-1968
sensibility guiding the execution. And Rickey’s sidekick was such a stock
hyperventilating nerd that I imagine even Smithers from The Simpsons would be
like, “Goddamn. Man up!”
Odie: I’m with you on Rickey’s bespectacled worrywort of a sidekick. But I
disagree about Smith and Robinson simply because Smith gives 42 one of its
themes when he tells Robinson to be prepared, to see that slow pitch coming.
Granted, their dialogue would have benefitted from being punched up, but I
guess I accepted it for what it was.
Steven: As for Helgeland’s direction: He’s got some great instincts, but—and
I know I’m being a spoiled backseat driver here—a truly dynamic scene-maker
like Spielberg would have choreographed the shit out of the “nigger
nigger” scene and the fanboys-chase-the-train scene. Helgeland, like
Levinson, is more of a screenwriter, leaning on world-class cinematographers to
make scenes look good but not naturally fluent the way a Spielberg or a
Zemeckis would be. The tradeoff is that those cats probably would have softened
certain blows that Helgeland strikes without restraint. They would have cut out
a few of those “niggers.”
Odie: That train scene, with the two children chasing after their hero’s
train as he departs, would have been a home run off Spielberg’s bat. Maybe I
impressed more of my own feelings here, but the look in that kid’s eyes after Robinson
hands him the ball choked me up. I knew what that felt like; it felt like
raindrops hitting the earth after a long drought. You could almost see that kid
thinking “I too can be a baseball player!” Or even better yet,
“I could be President of the United States.” Thank God the kid in
that scene eventually became a baseball player instead! Had he been dreaming of
the Presidency, that scene would have been followed by some White kids beating
him over the head with the fake Presidential seal he glued to his fake podium!
Steven: Oh hell yeah. This movie’s intent is clear in that scene: to show
black kids something different. It doesn’t have to be slick, clever,
eye-popping–just show black kids what it’s like to have a dream; to meet a
hero who embodies that dream; to pursue it without a self-defeating attitude
and to make it. We have been drowning in fatalism for 50 years.
This film is calculated to endure. Also, to get heavy rotation in the
schools. What you said about the fake podium is actually pretty sad. Because
it’s true. This country we live in is haunted by millions of broken dreams, so
many of them black.
Odie: I’m hoping to see more correctives like this, and from minority
artists telling stories of THEIR dreams.
To close out: As you know, I’m
a huge fan of Jackie Robinson. He broke the minor league color barrier in my
hometown of Jersey City, on a field I got to play on decades later. As a little
hoodrat, I didn’t think anything of importance happened in my ‘hood, but within
walking distance, a hero who looked like me did something profound. You want to
talk about the notion of believing one could do anything? I got that notion
after I learned about Jackie Robinson’s Royals game against the Jersey City
Giants. I wasn’t around when they erected that statue of Robinson down at
Roosevelt Stadium, but I went to see the unveiling of the Pee Wee Reese and
Jackie Robinson down at Coney Island. Considering that the last time I was in
Coney Island, I got peed on AND my head busted open (both on rides, I should
add), revisiting the joint could only have happened for something as
emotionally big for me as Jackie Robinson.
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger
Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for
Capital New York and blogs at Hentai Lab.
A globetrotting computer programmer by trade and movie lover by hobby, Odie Henderson has contributed to Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door since 2006. Additionally, his work has appeared at Movies Without Pity (2008) and numerous other sites. He currently runs the blog Tales of Odienary Madness.