In 1945, the Allies celebrated their victory over the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Back home in the Allied superpower of the United States of America, however, a battle for freedom on another front still raged: the battle against racism.
President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation 82 years before. But segregation still separated blacks from whites in large swaths of our land. African-Americans were forced to use separate restrooms in many places; to sit at the back of buses; and to stay away from designated hotels, restaurants and businesses—not to mention enduring bruising verbal slurs as well as threats of violence … or actual assaults.
White baseball players, for instance, competed in Major League Baseball. Black athletes, meanwhile, were relegated to the Negro League. Never did the two worlds intersect.
Until, that is, one brave team owner decided it was time for a change. Time for an end to segregation on the ball field. "I don't know who he is," Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey tells his front office management team in the spring of 1945, "or where he is. But he's coming." The he in question? MLB's first black player—a player Rickey was determined to recruit.
On the surface, Rickey's motivation seems driven by money. "New York's full of negro baseball fans," he explains. "Dollars aren't black and white. They're green." But it turns out there's more to Rickey's barrier-shattering decision than that.
A year later, the Dodgers have found their man, a base-stealing slugger from the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs. His name is Jackie Robinson. When one of Rickey's men points out that Robinson was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged from the Army, Rickey counters that it was because Robinson refused to submit to unfair treatment. "If he were white," Rickey says, "we'd call that spirit."
Spirit is something Robinson will need as he faces resistance at every turn. On the field. In hotels. In airports. Even on his own team (first as a player for the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946, then as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947). It's a barrier-busting role that will demand courage, Rickey tells Robinson at the outset: the courage not to retaliate.
"You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" Robinson demands.
"No," Rickey says. "I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back."
"You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, and I'll give you the guts," Robinson promises.
And in so doing he becomes one of the most decorated soldiers ever to fight in that homegrown battle against prejudice and racial hate.
Robinson and Rickey both exhibit tremendous amounts of courage. Robinson has to endure prejudice from players and fans. He's repeatedly demeaned with the n-word, has baseballs thrown at his head, has to flee from a mob, etc. Rickey, for his part, comes in for criticism too. But he never backs down, and he threatens to trade any player who can't deal with Robinson's presence. (When a ballplayer comes to Rickey with a threatening letter that's been written to him, the Dodgers' owner pulls out three huge files of similar letters that target Jackie.)
Rickey wisely coaches Robinson's response to racist attacks. The owner knows Robinson will be subjected to a different set of rules, namely that he can't retaliate. "Your enemy will be out in force," Rickey advises, "and you cannot meet him on his own low ground."
When Robinson laments his critics' slurs, Rickey responds, "These men have to live with themselves." Robinson hints at quitting, and Rickey tells him he can't, because of all the people who "need you, respect you and believe in you." And, slowly, Robinson's grit, integrity and athleticism win him allies on the team and in the broader culture.
Standing with Robinson in his struggle are his devoted wife, Rachel; and a young, black Pittsburgh Courier sports reporter named Wendell Smith. Rachel flinches when Robinson is intentionally hit with a pitch, but—despite tears—she never back away from the bigger struggle to desegregate pro baseball. Wendell tells Robinson about his struggles with segregation, namely that he's not allowed to sit in the press box. "You, Mr. Robinson," he says, "are not the only one with something at stake here."
Manager Leo Durocher defends Jackie's right to play ball. And a teammate named Pee Wee Reese publically puts his arm across Robinson's shoulders as a statement of solidarity. Reese says of his racist fans and family in the stands, "I need them to know who I am."
Many other inspiring moments turn up throughout the film. A white man tells Robinson, "I'm pulling for you to make good. If a man's got the goods, he deserves to get a fair chance." Rickey tells Robinson a story about seeing a white kid emulating some of Robinson's trademark actions. "He was pretending to be you," Rickey says. "A little white boy was pretending to be a black man."
Jackie Robinson isn't just brave when it comes to baseball, by the way. He tells his newborn son, "My daddy left us flat in Cairo, Ga. I was only six months older than you are now. I don't remember him. Nothing good. Nothing bad. Nothing. You will remember me. I'm gonna be with you until the day I die."
[Spoiler Warning] Rickey eventually tells Robinson that what motivated him to bring an African-American into the Majors was the fact that he'd failed to defend a black player from being treated unfairly many years before, and that the guilt of it had haunted him ever since. "It was something unfair at the heart of the game I loved," he says, adding that he pushed the thought of it away until "time came when I could no longer ignore it." Then this: "You helped me love baseball again."
References to God and Scripture turn up regularly. Some are lighthearted: Rickey says, "Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God's a Methodist." And he tells Robinson, "Run those bases like the devil himself. Put the natural fear of God in them." Rickey also lobs, "For the love of Peter," "Judas priest" and "What in Satan's fire does he want!?"
Others are deeply felt: Rickey tells Robinson, "Like our Savior, you've got to have the guts to turn the other cheek." Later, Rickey suggests to Robinson that he's a living, breathing sermon illustration in his willingness not to retaliate against those who taunt him.
With Robinson at the plate, a boy in the stands prays to God that Robinson can show everyone "what he can do." Near the end of the film, we hear Sister Wynona Carr's song "The Ball Game," which describes a Christian's journey through life in baseball terms.
A suggestive comment is made about Robinson sleeping with white players' wives. He's not. But Durocher is having an affair with an actress. They're shown in bed. (He's shirtless, she's wearing a bra.) Then, in a phone conversation with Durocher, Rickey says, "The Bible has a thing or two to say about adultery." And the man ends up losing his job for his indiscretion when a Catholic organization threatens to boycott baseball.
Men are shown in boxers. Locker room scenes show players in showers (from the shoulders up) and with towels wrapped around their waists. Self-conscious stammers accompany a moment of gracious magnanimity when a white player invites Robinson to shower with the rest of the team. There's talk of periods and pregnancy.
Robinson tenderly (quickly) kisses the middle of his wife's chest while she's wearing a camisole.
Robinson's knocked out when he gets hit in the head by a pitch; a bench-clearing brawl ensues. Another player intentionally spikes Robinson's leg with his cleats; we see Robison getting stitched up. A white man comes to the house where Robinson is staying during spring training and tells him there's a mob organizing. As Robinson and Wendall are leaving town, a group of men walks menacingly out of a bar toward their car.
Robinson and other teammates receive hostile letters—including death threats. After being repeatedly called a "n-gger," Robinson walks into the tunnel behind the dugout where he privately breaks a bat in frustration.
Crude or Profane Language
One use each of the s-word, "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard." God's name gets paired with "d‑‑n" four or five times. We hear "b‑‑ch" about that same number of times.
At games, fans and opposing players hurl the epithet "n-gger" at Robinson so many times it's hard to keep up with a count; a conservative estimate would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50. Other racist slurs are said as well. And a guy makes a racist comment about Jews.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Rickey always has a cigar in hand. Several scenes show men drinking beer.
I always knew Jackie Robinson was an important figure in the history of professional baseball. But before watching 42, I don't think I really grasped just how trailblazing Robinson's presence was. His willingness to endure taunts, threats, intimidation and violence, all without responding in kind, was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Similarly remarkable, in a behind-the-scenes kind of way, was Branch Rickey's willingness to recruit Robinson in the first place, then stand behind his man the whole way, coaching and encouraging him not to give up.
Indeed, 42 is drenched in inspiration, in part because it doesn't shy away from realistically depicting the kind of resistance Robinson and Rickey were up against. There's a downside to that kind of approach, of course. Casual profanity ebbs and flows through the narrative, and a bit of suggestive sexual material is included too. But the film's many uses of the n-word aren't unleashed loosely or lightly, and they land like the stinging crack of a verbal whip, a wince-inducing reminder of racism's harsh history in our country. Especially heartbreaking is a scene when a man in the stands starts spitting the slur at Robinson … encouraging his young son to do the same. Robinson's ability to bear up under such abuse seriously reinforced my sense of just how heroic his perseverance really was.
And the litany of this film's teachable moments doesn't stop there. Robinson is a loving and faithful husband, a father who wants to do better than his own dad did and someone who relies on his faith to make it through. The latter is also true in Branch Rickey's case, whether he's quoting Scripture, alluding to Jesus or telling an adulterous manager to reconsider his immoral ways. In the end, these two men's faith and fortitude forged a path for others to follow, forever ending segregation in baseball and challenging racism in the culture at large along the way.