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The Historical Accuracy of 42

Since I know very little about baseball, the Jackie Robinson movie 42 presented me with
a flood of new information about the sport, the historical context within which Robinson was
signed as the first Black player in the national leagues, and about his life and the trials and
discrimination that he faced in pre-Civil Rights America. It is not always easy, however, to
untangle the facts that are historically accurate from those that are exaggerated or hyperdramatized in order to create a more visually and emotionally intense experience in the audience.
The movie as a whole is very attentive to detail and historical accuracy, but replaces realistic
dialogue with idealistic speeches and places the focus more on Jackies personal life and
emotional reactions to the discrimination against him as a Black man instead of focusing on the
social and historical significance of baseball in America and on Robinsons impact in the Black
community, which is referenced many times in conversation but never discussed or explored.
One question the movie raised for me was whether the Brooklyn Dodgers president
Branch Rickey actually supported equal rights or if he was motivated completely by a different
motive, such as money or media attention for the Dodgers. During one scene in 42, Rickey is
talking to another coach as Robinson is in the process of try-outs, and tells the coach that he will
be fired if he cant treat Robinson as an equal. There are several other scenes where Rickeys
character speaks out against racism. While the movie focuses on money as the main motivator
for almost all of the characters, second only to a deep love of the sport of baseball, it does cause
the audience to fully sympathize with Robinson and quite a few lines in the movie criticize
racism. It turns out that Rickey was indeed vocal about his support of Robinson and of equal
rights, but that he was also motivated by business. He stated in a remark to the press that I
signed Robinson in spite of the pressure-groups who are only exploiting the Negroes, instead of

advancing their cause. I signed him because I knew of no reason why I shouldnt. I want to win
baseball games, and baseball is a game that is played by human beings (1). In a later interview,
he revealed that his belief in equal rights was also a strong motive in signing African Americans
to the Dodgers (2) as was his deep belief in Christianity, which the movie correctly depicts. The
movie also accurately portrays the mixed reactions of Robinsons teammates to his joining the
team. One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie depicts the game between the Dodgers and
the Phillies where manager Ben Chapman taunts Robinson and tries to distract him from the
game with racial remarks and slurs. While I didnt question the accuracy of Chapmans open
racism, I did wonder if the Dodgers did nothing when this event happened, or if some defended
Robinson as they did in the movie. Once again, the movie stays true to the facts. Rickey told
press reporters that "Chapman did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers, and that "when he
poured out that stream of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and unified 30 men" (3).
However, the movie is not a documentary, and thus Hollywood takes some liberties with
the interpretation and presentation of the topic. Most of the dialogue, while it may be accurate, is
overly idealistic and glamourized, especially the interactions between Robinson and Rickey and
between Robinson and his wife. The movie also presents Robinson as being almost indifferent
to his role in the Black community, saying several times that he is willing to deal with
discrimination because he wants to make money or because he loves baseball, but not because he
cares about equal rights, when in fact he was very conscious of his baseball career as a symbol
of black opportunity (4). Breaking the color barrier in popular sports years before Brown v.
Board was ruled unconstitutional, Robinson also eventually became a business executive and
continued to champion the cause of civil rights, participating in voter-registration drives in the
South, and working with Martin Luther King Jr. (5). The movie also glosses over Robinsons

impact on American society and culture as a whole, and instead focuses on his personal struggle
against the racism that he experienced within the world of baseball. The general public was in
fact very interested in Robinson, whether or not they supported integrated sports teams, and he
became an icon in American pop-culture (6). During the time of Robinsons career, baseball was
also an extremely popular and important sport in the United States. It was created in the U.S.
and so was used to represent American nationalism, innovation, and strength, but it is also a sport
that emphasizes teamwork, logic, skill, and wholesome all-American play. Writer and cultural
critic Gerald Early discusses at length the deep relationship between baseball and American
culture and examines the mirroring of Democratic American values within the structure of the
game itself (7). While the movie does not quite create realistic interactions or dialogue, and
focuses on creating emotional reactions in the audience to Robinsons struggles rather than on his
immense impact on American culture and the equal rights movement, 42 is very historically
accurate in its portrayal of facts, events, and the general reactions of people in the baseball world
to Robinson.

Sources
1

http://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4961

2,4,6

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/collections/robinson/jr1947.html

3,5

http://teacher.scholastic.com/scholasticnews/indepth/upfront/features/index.asp?article=f
040207_Robinson

http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/baseball.html