Racism is as American as apple pie and ... baseball. Despite 200+ years as a melting pot, Americans cannot discuss race without setting off heated arguments or exposing raw emotions. After the election and reelection of the nation’s first black president our divisive history has framed the public discourse on Mayor Bloomberg’s Stop and Frisk policy, the media backlash against Trayvon Martin, and new restrictions placed on employees of the NYPD and FDNY after multiple racist posts and tweets from officers and first responders made headlines. Furthermore, this past election only amplified the factious nature of race as political pundits took an ethno-centric approach to explain the “Obama” coalition of voters.
The release this spring of Warner Brothers’ Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, offers the public a chance to discuss racism in an entertaining and relatable way. I'm excited to see this movie. Admittedly, I’m energized every time I watch the movie’s trailer featuring scenes from the film synced up with Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard.” Unfortunately, each time I’m reminded of the media’s role in promoting positive and negative stereotypes of black men and women. My mind starts wondering what the consequences will be of yet another movie about a star black athlete if it serves to reinforce stereotypes about African Americans only excelling on the playing field as opposed to in the classroom or the corporate boardroom.
Sports provide a neutral ground for Americans to talk about race. ESPN’s brilliant 30 for 30 series has used the backdrop of sports to talk about racial issues to critical acclaim while the FX comedy, The League, hilariously examines the language used by sportscasters when referencing a player’s race. By taking a quick trip to the movie tracking website, boxofficemojo.com, I see why Hollywood is eager to contextualize race in sports. Of the top grossing sports dramas, The Blind Side comes in first, bringing in more than $255 million during its theatrical run. Disney's Remember the Titans, a personal favorite of mine, raked in over $115 million during its time on the silver screen, while Sony's Ali and Buena Vista's Glory Road round out the top 30 taking in more than $58 million and $42 million, respectively. Even when not the focus of the story, racism is still often used as a minor plot point or detail in a character’s biography – Fortune in Rudy comes to mind.
We respond to movies about sports whether we’re diehard fans, casual viewers, or bored spectators. I find baseball dull, especially on television but on any given rainy day you’ll catch me watching Bull Durham and rooting for rookie pitcher Ebby LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, to get called up to the “show.” Sports are about winners and losers. Competition is ingrained in our culture, reinforced by our economic system, and celebrated in our society. It doesn’t matter if the hero is Jackie Robinson, Rudy Ruettiger, Katniss Everdeen, or the Karate Kid we all respond to a desire to prove the doubters and the rule makers wrong.
This narrative has the ability to euphemize the racism associated with America’s history into a workable dialogue of wide-screen images and close-ups, fast moving tracking shots, and thundering 5.1 Dolby sound that creates an emotional connection to the hero regardless of our differences. Empathy with these heroes gives us a jumping off point from which we dive into the issues with a mutual understanding of the struggles we’ve experienced for the past two hours.
The writer/director of 42, Brian Helgeland, has masterfully scripted some of the finest dramatic stories and compelling characters with such films as L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, and Man on Fire. No doubt that his adaptation of Jackie Robinson will connect with audiences and inspire them with his courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Hollywood movies often embellish the role of the individual in bringing out change. Overstating Robinson’s involvement in gaining equality for all Americans is just as dangerous and harmful to a discussion on race as is narrow-mindedness. It creates the impression that the Civil Rights movement was the purview of a few extraordinary individuals rather than a constant struggle of millions against a society entrenched in the belief of racial hierarchy.
I bring up these criticisms not to discourage people from seeing this film but to encourage people to reflect on the messages that emanate from our entertainment-sports complex. The movie should be viewed and judged on its entertainment value first and foremost. If you want an accurate history of the Civil Rights movement then Hollywood films shouldn't be your reference. One man’s incredible journey knocking down the color barrier in baseball could never equal the sacrifices of millions of nameless heroes from every corner of America. Our views on race in America are constantly being discussed and debated in our schools, homes, and places of business. Movies like 42 add to the conversation but we should be mindful of the themes and messages employed by the filmmakers to bring the story of an American icon to life. Not to do so would dishonor his memory.