My wife and I saw the new film '42' which is about the life and career of baseball legend Jackie Robinson last night and came to the exact same conclusion that Armond White did in his outstanding review--'42' is the best American film that we have seen in many years--especially a film focused primarily on a black character. I couldn't agree more with White's typically prescient and insightful review. This is a GREAT film that rather surprisingly manages to say something profound and honest about this country and sports that is usually ALWAYS MISSING from other films who take up these topics. The lead performances by the young black actor Chadwick Boseman (keep a sharp eye on this cat--I think we have another truly groundbreaking actor coming our way!) and of all people Harrison Ford who was far, far better playing Branch Rickey than in any film I've ever seen the usually hopelessly wooden, one dimensional, and utterly mediocre actor play. WHO KNEW HE COULD PULL IT OFF? Certainly not I, but Ford actually did a very fine job. All credit is due to the many fine actors in this wonderful movie and the writer/director Brian Helgeland who I think the Academy should just give the "best director" Oscar for 2014 right now. That's my honestly heartfelt account of just how good and substantial his work (and that of his excellent DP) was. Thus, a great review of a great movie is very appropriate. I KNEW Armond would love this movie because like the actors, director/writer and the advisory role of the great Rachel Robinson herself (still absolutely regal, elegant, and brilliantly lucid at age 90!), White is a mature and visionary critic who has artistic and intellectual INTEGRITY AND PRIDE along with a profound UNDERSTANDING and KNOWLEDGE of the game that is essential to telling Jackie's truly heroic story in an intelligent, honest, and truly engaging cinematic manner...In other words--GO SEE THIS IMPORTANT FILM RIGHT AWAY. YOU WON'T REGRET IT...
'42': The Jackie Robinson Legend
reviewed by Armond White
APRIL 9, 2013
We are fortunate to be spared Spike Lee’s take on the Jackie Robinson story, which surely would have been spiteful: emphatic about race grievance and loaded with numerous Spikey tangents. But Brian Helgeland has fashioned 42, a superbly watchable tale, from Robinson’s groundbreaking desegregation of professional baseball through the machinations of farm system innovator Branch Rickey. It’s also a film about American spiritual history and destiny. The issues and emotions have a beautiful clarity.
Titled after Robinson’s player number (retired for all teams by the Major League Baseball association yet worn by players every April 15th–Jackie Robinson Day), 42 commemorates Robinson breaking the game’s color bar in 1947 as the first Negro playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Helgeland depicts this world-changing risk as a cultural story–not simply one man’s life story. Instead of biographical depth, 42’s character sketches sustain the same benevolence as the MLB’s memorial; its lively and vivid narrative celebrate the arduous steps of a social and moral revolution.
More than a baseball movie, 42 touches on the folktale qualities evinced in Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Dodgers’ General Manager Rickey (played by Harrison Ford). Showing baseball as the medium of social change, its practice and rituals are understood as basic to America’s sense of capability despite prevailing social divisions. That explains Helgeland’s elastic, All-American sense of class. Robinson strides into the roughneck world of sport possessing higher personal principles. He and wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) are already upwardly mobile; they need only the income and recognition that White Americans take for granted.
Helgeland’s respect for aspiration, which informs every scene, is central to the story’s concept. Rickey’s decision to integrate baseball has an uplifting, spiritual goal: “I don’t know who he is or where he is, but he’s coming,” Rickey says in 1945 and then after narrowing a list of prohibited Negro players, half-jokes, “Robinson is a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God is a Methodist. You can’t go wrong, get him here.”
But Rickey’s also pragmatic: “Dollars aren’t black or white, they’re green.” His justifications are true to a folksy era far different from today’s avaricious secularism yet it’s authentic to a way of thinking and feeling that was intrinsic to the psychodynamics of that 19th century sport. This fact supports Helgeland’s unique historic fable quality (perfectly expressed in Sister Wynona Carr’s vintage gospel end credits theme “The Ball Game:” “Life is a ball game but you got to play it fair.”)
Now let’s get rid of any narrow-minded suspicion about Hollywood race stories always unequally pairing history’s Black sacrificial figures with dominant White cohorts. Helgeland’s even-handed vision of the Rickey-Robinson revolution enlarges it, taking in different aspects of America’s racial reality. Not merely the Jackie Robinson story, 42 relates tandem efforts and transformations by Rickey, Negro sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), assorted teammates (many brief, perfectly etched characterizations from Max Gail’s genial retired manager Burt Shotton, Chris Meloni’s virile Leo Durocher to Lucas Black’s affable Pee Wee Reese) and the crowds who fill the stands. This is the best casting since Cadillac Records; all profiles in courage.
The back office functioning behind America’s public face rarely gets shown but 42 appropriately reveals its significance, primarily through Harrison Ford’s undeniable appeal. Never credited for comic warmth, that quality distinguished Ford’s Indiana Jones from all movie action heroes. As Rickey, Ford’s elderly crusty growl is a homey voice of experience. Even Ford’s sly smile has spiritual authority which keeps Rickey’s personal confession (when Robinson asks him “Why?”) from being soggy or pious; it’s a perfectly balanced personification of wiliness and principle. Ford’s masculine affability confirms the noble essence of the civil rights movement, especially in Rickey’s warning to Robinson: “Like our Saviour, you’ve got to have the guts to turn the other cheek.”
Projecting magnanimous decency, Ford puts Rickey’s risk-taking and persistent urging in perfect balance to newcomer Boseman who portrays Robinson’s circumspect heroism. This isn’t a timid, nonthreatening Black man; he’s self-assured yet resentful of those who want to make him humble. Jeffrey Wright has played this Poitier complex but Denzel Washington never has. 42 is the first movie ever to show what it’s like for a Black man of intelligence to be disrespected by the White ruling class yet maintain his dignity and modesty. (42 has moments that compare to Poitier‘s recall of hearing a Hollywood technician call for “the nigger light” and having to endure the degradation.) Boseman’s wary intelligence conveys deep pride, a forgotten aspect of Black America’s still-gradual civil rights evolution.
Helgeland lets Ford/Rickey’s courage balance both the past era’s most advanced attitudes and the modern audience’s guileless ignorance of that history. The young Black actors–all ebullient, optimistic, determined–represent Blacks’ hopes while the familiar Whites personify fears. When 42 presents these details (as in Robinson and Reese‘s on-field pantomime), it surpasses Steven Spielberg’s morally arrogant Lincoln with its too-modern token Blacks and deified politician.
During a remarkable sequence of Robinson in the batter’s box being taunted by the Philadelphia Phillies’ racist manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) repeating only a few less N-bombs than Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Rickey transforms the attack strategically, sympathetically. This extraordinary assessment of how institutional racism was conquered by American fellow-feeling outstrips all Tony Kushner’s fancy wordplay in Lincoln. It is the essence of compassion, not smug literariness. 42 puts social progress in humane terms–on the ball field. in splendid deep-focus that keeps nature and human effort in lovely, balanced perspective.
Helgeland has made a film totally without cynicism (and it’s a better approach to history than George Lucas’ lame Tuskegee Airman tribute Red Tails). Cynicism is what ruined Lincoln; cynicism was at the core of Kushner and Spielberg’s self-congratulatory warping of history–which was why liberals overrated it. Will Obama-era audiences appreciate 42’s richness with its deep understanding of how hard-won compassion has greater everyday effectiveness than the rule of law? Its splendid depiction of ball field effort? Or it’s unforgettable silhouetted fatherly embrace? These images test fairness within the glory of nature without the falsity of The Natural or Field of Dreams but like no movie since Robert Aldrich’s The Big Leaguer.
I’d like to describe more of 42’s wonderful scenes such as the shots of Robinson rounding the bases, focused on his “42” uniform imprint and its existential connotation like a Bresson icon, but viewers should discover such beauty for themselves. Rickey and Robinson may have been spiritual visionaries, but in this film they unite over the idea of being “built to last” by doing the right thing. Whatever 42’s fate in this cynical market, it is built to last.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair
LIKE I HAVE BEEN SAYING FOR OVER 20 YEARS NOW: Armond White is the best damn film critic in this country and NOBODY ELSE is even close. The true test of any real critic in any genre is not whether you always and under every circumstance "agree"/"disagree" with the analysis, exegesis, and insight that the critic provides but whether you actually LEARN SOMETHING new, interesting, thought-provoking, and USEFUL from his/her criticism. In other words: Does the critic have intellectual, moral, artistic, and political COURAGE, HONESTY, INTEGRITY, AND DEPTH or not? Armond is that very rare individual who never fails to display exactly that in every single critique and review he does. He's one of the very few writers in America that I am in absolute AWE of. White is a true MASTER at his craft and we're damn lucky/fortunate to have him...
'The Central Park Five'
Comedian Chris Rock embarrassed himself at this year’s New York Film Critic Circle dinner when presenting a prize to the Ken Burns film The Central Park Five. The black, Brooklyn-born Rock declared “It makes you think I was wrong. Burns shows we were all wrong!” about the April, 19, 1991 incident in which five black New York youths (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yuself Salaam) were defamed in local news media after police intimidation had forced them into falsely confessing to the rape and near-murder of a woman then identified as “The Central Park Jogger.”
Rock’s unroyal “We” was politically submissive (and Burns repeated the trope in his acceptance speech: “Everybody in this room got it wrong”). It revealed how class prerogative is felt by cultural pets like Rock and Burns–financially well-compensated and publicly celebrated representatives of the social elite. It was apparent from his deferential presentation that Rock no longer identified with those black New Yorkers who held to their criticism of the crime investigation–particularly those outraged at how media coverage of the Central Park case typically treated it as an opportunity to further stigmatize, condemn and assert superiority over New York’s least powerful social groups.
Classic New York disposition talks back to authority and remains skeptical toward the media’s official versions of controversial social events; it preserves personal, complex, aggrieved, vexing, street savvy. The “Jogger” case (portrayed in tabloid headlines as the “wilding” incident, describing black youths marauding Central Park and terrorizing citizens) revealed a panicky power reflex. Police and media responded to hiphop culture by slapping back the rising social prominence of disenfranchised black youth and reasserting traditional racist fears.
Any sentient New York viewer, including Rock, should know these things. These were perceptions and projections that only the mainstream media–the voice of the empowered class–got wrong, perversely influencing legal and judicial process. Burns’ film doesn’t dig into this “court of public opinion” corruption; as in his PBS documentaries, he presents an “official” review of events that questions status quo media prejudices only in hindsight.
Rock internalized and accepted these preconceptions in his disloyal “we.” Rock’s “we” certainly did not include New York’s black-owned media like the weekly newspaper The City Sun that actively questioned police and media performance regarding the case. Rock also ignored the extraordinary Joan Didion essay “Sentimental Journeys” for The New York Review of Books that in 1992 laid out the Byzantine patterns of New York ethnic bias evident in social power, political influence and media practice.
By falling way short of Didion’s inquiry and her “J’accuse!” Burns’ doc 9 airing tonight on PBS) creates a worthless new myth that absolves citizen skepticism. He misuses his “official” status–just as Rock misused his celebrity status–to render independent thinking, political skepticism and ethnic responsibility impossible.
In The Central Park Five media-class imperiousness overshadows the story of the five youths as just another one of the eight million New York stories that never get told until too late. Burns glides past the years and opportunities stolen from these men; his close-ups stare back vacantly at the barely suppressed rage and inconceivable damage in their suddenly aged faces.
For Rock to ratify this indifference shows his own coolness to the abuse of authority that is part of New York class and race reality–realities Rock’s dubious stand-up humor turns into racially exploitive cynicism (quoted in a New York Times op-ed as recently as today). Burns inserts declarations of this cynicism by only a few of his “official” interviews. MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder says: “I want us to remember what happened that day and be horrified by ourselves. Because it really is a mirror on our society. And rather than tying it up in a bow and thinking that there is something that we can take away from it and we’ll be better people. I think what we really need to realize is that we’re not very good people. And we’re often not.” This “we” shit is editorial writer arrogance and it lacks spiritual compunction about error, sin, forgiveness and repentance.
Rock’s NYFCC testimony effectively denies that sense of voiceless vulnerability that the Central Park Five suffered and is every New Yorker’s fear–and tragic destiny. (To be media-voiceless is to be powerless in this town). A good doc-maker would explore this; Burns does not. Instead, he does the obvious prevarication: goes to a New York Times writer, the estimable Jim Dwyer, for authority. Yet, oddly, Burns never features Times reporting of the Jogger event to complete his chronicle of media coverage. Dwyer (Burns’ typical PBS-style, talking-figurehead) pronounces: “The coverage in 2002 [when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime] was worst than what had happened in 1989. More resistant to fact. More obstinate about being wrong…This was institutional protectionism that was going on…I don’t think the press faced its mistakes. I don’t think the police department faced the truth of what had happened because the truth of what happened is almost unbearable…They got stuck with the mistake and they’re still invested in that mistake.”
It’s too easy to say these things in reflection. Or disingenuously, as in Rock’s show of empowered-group ignorance. Our old enemy, liberal sentimentality raises its hypocritical head again as Burns recreates that warm, self-satisfied feeling of the Scottsboro case but this time without risking social censure or status. Rock and Burns are content to be both repentant and smug. The pity on view in The Central Park Five is not for any of the incident’s victims (or New York itself) but for Burns’ and Rock’s own class.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair