Film Review – 42

Sports and spirituality are often closely tied to one another, even in recent years as society has become less and less willing to talk about matters of faith in public settings like professional athletics.

Keeping with that tradition comes the film 42, a new biopic detailing the life and career of baseball legend Jackie Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman), most famously known as being the first African-American player to break the colour barrier and play in the major leagues. Though not billed as a Christian film necessarily, 42 just might be the most Christian film we've seen from a major Hollywood studio in years.

Synopsis and technical notes

Written and directed by Brian Hedgeland, 42 takes in the late 1940s, beginning almost immediately with the start of Robinson's foray into the big leagues as orchestrated by then-Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). While Rickey's motivations to sign Robinson are glossed over a little too quickly for the storytelling purposes of the film, the focus of 42 is in the right place for the most part, and communicates a strong message of patience and perseverance in lieu of angry retribution.

Key sub-plots of 42 include Robinson's relationship to his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who offers her support and concern throughout the film, as well as Jackie's determination to be a better husband and parent than his own father, who walked out on he and his mother at a very young age. As well, the film focuses on the teambuilding of the Brooklyn Dodgers who slowly grow to appreciate Jackie as a teammate who can help them win and most importantly, as a human being just trying to do the best he can amid some particularly potent hostility, sometimes from his own teammates.

For much of the rest of the movie, the focus is on Robinson's life in and outside of baseball, and how he comes to grips with the obvious implications of his decision to step into "white baseball" at a time when racial segregation was still largely commonplace in the United States. And while some of the more "highbrow" cinema-goers in the room may groan at the heavily orchestrated soundtrack, which has a way of turning every scene into an Academy Award ballot clip, the message is an inspirational one that does a fine job in capturing the look and cultural atmosphere of 1940s America.

General disclaimers

While 42 is not short on spiritual content (which we'll explore in a moment), a number of disclaimers should be made for parents wondering whether to take their children to see this film.

Though not graphically depicted, 42 contains a few brief instances of suggestive sexual content and scantily-clad cast members, both in the bedroom and the locker room. But aside from a few moments, the film is pretty tame in terms of sexual content, though not completely without incident.

Parents will likely have the biggest concerns with coarse language in this one. And while there's a fair bit to be concerned about in regards to general profanities, it's perhaps the racial epithets that might be the cause of most anxiety among parents and language-conscious viewers in general.

But while the language might be difficult for modern audiences to stomach comfortably, it's worth noting that their usage, though abundant, is not gratuitous. Truly, themes of overcoming racism are at the heart of 42, and this is one of those rare cases where harsh language (in this case, several uses of the n-word) is actually crucial to the impact of the movie. It's hard to feel the emotional weight of what Jackie goes through in the film, and so for that reason, audiences might be best served to set aside their concerns of racial slurs for the sake of the point that 42 attempts to make.

Deeper meanings and greater gleanings

While many films require we as Christian viewers to do some digging to search for spiritual themes within an otherwise secular medium, 42 is a rare case in which the themes of the biblical text are mentioned more overtly to which we as the audience are accustomed. Throughout the entirety of 42, themes of religious nature are mentioned regularly, and even worked into the script humorously, in a way that doesn't mock spirituality in the same way that has become commonplace in many Hollywood movies.

"Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God's a Methodist," quips Branch Rickey in one early scene. And while audiences are led to chuckle at the ridiculousness of the statement, it's more reflective of the character than the beliefs he's expressing.

The most obvious lesson we can draw from 42 is the often talked-about but rarely realized practice of "turning the other cheek," as mentioned explicitly by Branch Rickey in one of the early scenes of the film. The best quote of the film comes from an exchange between Jackie and Rickey, in which Jackie asks, "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?"

To which Rickey responds, "No. I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back."

It's something that we as Christians are really good at understanding in theory, but very rarely are we forced to live it out in the same way that Jackie Robinson did in the early days of his Major League career. We're far more likely to seek immediate retribution (often under the guise of "acting justly") than we are to display the type of patience that Jesus calls us to—the kind exemplified by Jackie Robinson in 42.

Very rarely do mainstream movies speak with such obvious spiritual motivations, which is something that Christian audiences should make the most of, despite a few imperfections with coarse language and sexually suggestive content. 42 is a film that Christian audiences should make the effort to see, as it offers a good real-world example of how difficult it can be to truly live out the words of the gospel in practical terms, like turning the other cheek in the face of prejudice, discrimination and outright hatred.

Jesus' message was never meant to be comfortable, and in the case of Jackie Robinson as showcased in 42, it sometimes hits a little closer to home than we might like to acknowledge. The good news is that there's always time to come around and be a part of changing the status quo, and making the world the kind of place that God desires.

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.