At first, the skin color of Brian Helgeland, writer/director of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 does not matter. In the case of this movie, it is about the message, and not the messenger. And now, more then ever, the Jackie Robinson story needs to be told. However, there are caveats to the marketing of this movie that would have benefited from having a writer/director who understands first hand what it means to be marginalized because of his or her race.
With the proliferation of social media into all forms of life, from wake-up to bedtime and every moment in between, history gets lost. For evidence of this, look no further than a recent ESPN Sportscenter poll, where Kobe Bryant was named a better Laker than Magic Johnson. In a 24-hour news cycle that has expanded offline and is now accessible via your Twitter feed, history gets the tertiary treatment, only allowing for its discovery when one feels obligated to dig for it. Anticipation-building is at an all time high, but the art of diving into issues is as shallow as ever (hello, sequester). Context gets lost, replaced with individual narratives.
With this in mind, its easy for kids of color to forget that less than 70 years ago, they couldn’t even pick up a bat with the opposite race – unless maybe they were cleaning it and handing it off. As older generations die off, and athletes become less socially responsible, stories like Robinson’s – the man who literally changed the face(s) of The National Pasttime – become increasingly important to include in the development of youngsters both in and out of sports.
Without this knowledge of history, kids of color in particular have one less group of people to look up to. Even people of my age forget that those who fought in the Civil Rights Movement are still alive and in our own families. Their stories, in my experience at least, seldom get unearthed. If this movie can serve to remind people of this fact, then I believe the movie has done its job; and of course, realizing this goal has nothing to do with skin-color. A white person can tell a story and elicit emotion just as well as anybody else can. But the success of a movie goes behind the proverbial X’s and O’s; a successful movie demands an effective marketing campaign.
There are things that black people experience – and other minorities experience – that instill a special type of awareness within them. This acuteness allows minorities to see racial slights that might be invisible or benign to a white person, and diagnose them as racist based on how a person of another race or gender may perceive them. These are things that a white person can’t always recognize – much less translate onto the silverscreen. They are not obvious, but instead subtle forms of racism, or trivializations, like when the black guy in the commercial gets asked to become the party caterer. In response, minorities develop a heightened sensitivity. While we may not always be on the lookout for these allusions to inferiority, we know them when we see them. Helgeland, as a white man, naturally remains blind to these instances, which, in the eyes of someone of color or a minority, shine as bright as day.
This brings us to the marketing of 42.
“I Jack. I Rob. I Sin//Aw man, I’m Jackie Robinson//Except when I run base, I dodge the pen”
In this trailer, a Jay-Z song, "Brooklyn Go Hard," is chosen to accompany the imagery of Jackie Robinson’s journey from nothing to something. What the imagery portrays, however, the musical background, per the lyrics provided above, does all in its power to nullify. Taken completely out of context of the original song, the viewer is left with the lyrics above to associate with one of the most beloved figures in African-American history. What is left are images of a black man, backed up by lyrics that evoke everything that Jackie Robinson, and by all accounts most black people today, are completely disassociated from. The lyrics evoke the life of a drug dealer.
In this regard, the marketing behind the movie serves to be completely counterproductive to the message of the movie. It takes what one man has contributed to the progression of history for all Americans, and superimposes some of the ugliest stereotypes of African-American culture over it, thereby robbing us all of the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices one man had to make to truly make this world a better place.
If Brian Helgeland were black, do I think he would have noticed this egregious error in marketing strategy (we hope) and stopped it? Hell yes. But, do I expect him, as a white man who has probably never felt the unwelcoming gaze of a shopkeeper, or party host, to notice? Hell no.
This is precisely the problem with a white person making 42 – in a movie whose topic is as important as this, special attention has to be paid beyond just the final cut.