Five Fears About 42 (Participation)

Five Fears About 42

By Dave Zirin

 

I’m both excited and apprehensive about the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. I’m excited because any high-profile film and attendant discussion about the man Martin Luther King, Jr., called “a freedom rider before freedom rides” should be a positive. I’m excited because the film might stir people to read brilliant books like Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment, Chris Lamb’s Blackout and Arnold Rampersand’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography. I’m apprehensive because we know what Hollywood does to history. It’s not unlike what a monster truck does to a ferret: leaving it flattened and unrecognizable with all its sharp teeth knocked out. Historical movies about sports and the triumph over racism are often even worse. Films like Glory Road or Remember the Titans follow the s-i-c formula: segregation, integration, celebration. In a biopic of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, that formula would be particularly ironic since Jackie Robinson was doubting his own integrationist belief in the better angels of this country at the end of his life. I will watch 42 with an open mind. However, here in advance are five aspects of Jackie Robinson’s tumultuous, politically complicated life story I fear won’t make the film’s final cut.

 

1. Branch Rickey was no saint. Based upon previews, it certainly appears that the hero of 42 will be not only Jackie Robinson, but Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey played by Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. Yet Rickey, while brave in bringing Robinson to the majors, hopefully will not be exempt from criticism. He is what Melissa Harris-Perry would call “an imperfect ally.” Rickey was responsible for Robinson’s entry in the majors. He also bears a great deal of weight for the implosion of the Negro Leagues, after Robinson made his debut in 1947.

The Negro Leagues weren’t just a place of thwarted ambitions for the country’s best African American players. They were also the largest national black-owned business in the country. Black owners, bookkeepers, trainers, coaches, and groundspeople were all part of what was a source of economic power, pride and self-sufficiency. Yet Rickey was ruthless in his dealings with Negro League owners, publicly claiming no obligation to compensate teams for signing away their talent. That became the pattern as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and many more were signed out of the Negro Leagues and this infrastructure of black economic power rotted away, creating a racial power imbalance in sports that persists to this day. Rickey’s pilfering, layered with a public campaign of denigration, set the Negro Leagues on the road to ruin.

Rickey was also, as he said proudly, “no bleeding heart.” He saw the economic advantage of showcasing, as Jackie Robinson said himself, “a patient black freak” for mass consumption. In fact, Rickey had far more public concern and condemnation for how black Americans would respond to Robinson than the reaction of white Americans. As he said at a mass meeting of New York’s “respectable” black community, “The one enemy most likely to ruin [Robinson’s] success are the Negro people themselves. You’ll hold Jackie Robinson days, and Jackie Robinson nights. You’ll get drunk. You’ll fight. You’ll be arrested. You’ll wine and dine the player until he is fat and futile. You’ll [turn him into] a national comedy and ultimate tragedy.” The audience applauded. I’d love to see the film dramatize this scene and educate people about pre-civil rights class tensions within the black community. I’m not hopeful.

 

2. Testifying against Paul Robeson. The most high profile political event in Jackie Robinson’s life is almost certainly not going to be in this movie. It was 1949, and Robinson took part in what he called “the greatest regret of my life,” testifying against perhaps the most famous African-American in the country, the singer, actor and communist-aligned activist Paul Robeson, in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. When Paul Robeson said, “Blacks would never pick up arms against the Soviet Union,” HUAC wanted to bury him. To legitimize their attack, they called on Robinson to testify. This made perfect sense as Rickey and the media had presented Robinson, a proud veteran and patriot, as a symbol of racial progress.

Robinson, in a prepared statement to HUAC, said, “Every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence he has to stop it. This has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not do…. Blacks were stirred up long before there was a CP and will be stirred up after unless Jim Crow has disappeared.” Such a statement, both in the absence of a civil rights movement and directly in the face of a HUAC committee dominated by Dixiecrat segregationists, was incredibly brave.

However, it was Robinson’s next remark regarding Robeson that has stood the test of time. “I haven’t any comment to make except that the statement [about Blacks refusing to fight the USSR]—if Mr. Robeson actually made it—sounds very silly to me… Negroes have too much invested in America to throw it away for a siren song sung in bass.” With those words he had done the bidding of HUAC—giving them license and cover to attack and persecute Robeson. Robeson was asked to condemn Jackie Robinson but he wouldn’t do it. Jackie’s “greatest regret” should be a part of a film about his life.

 

3. The role of Lester “Red” Rodney and the Daily Worker newspaper. Speaking of Communists, without the radical Reds, it’s highly likely that Jackie Robinson never gets the chance to break the color line. Lester Rodney, the sports editor for the US Communist Party’s Daily Worker paper from 1936 to 1958, launched a high profile labor-based campaign to integrate baseball in the 1930s. (Like thousands of others, Rodney left the party in 1958 when the extent of the crimes of Joseph Stalin were revealed.) As he said, “[The campaign] just evolved as we talked about the color line and some kids in the YCL suggested, ‘Why don’t we go to the ballparks—to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds—with petitions?'”

This was history-making work. That petition campaign evolved into the issue becoming part of May Day and Labor Day mass union demonstrations where the slogan “End Jim Crow in Baseball” was displayed with proud prominence. In the late 1990s, Rodney’s role was finally recognized and embraced. He was interviewed on ESPN and PBS and also spoke on panels in 1997, sitting next to Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson. I saw in the credits of 42 that an actor plays Wendell Smith, the legendary sports columnist and editor for the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. Smith worked alongside and exchanged articles for publication with Lester Rodney. I didn’t see anyone playing Rodney. It’s a greasy move if the filmmakers, after 15 years of appreciation and three years after his death, shove Lester Rodney back in the closet.

4. Jackie Robinson: Republican? Whether the powers behind 42 are Republican or Democrat, tackling Jackie’s own politics are both an education as well as somewhat embarrassing for both parties. Robinson was a Republican for most of his life and people like former RNC chair Michael Steele have raised this in speeches as a way to highlight the party’s historical roots in the black community—as well as a way to deny the present evidence of racism. But Robinson was a Republican because, from his Georgia birth, he had a hardened, and quite justifiable, view that the Democrats were Dixiecrats—the party of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow. When John Kennedy gave his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Robinson saw sitting by JFK’s side none other than Democratic Governor of Arkansas and notorious segregationist Orval Faubus, and this confirmed his worst fears that little had changed. But Robinson would be devastated as the Republicans became the new home of the Dixiecrats after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. When he was a guest at the 1964 Republican convention and heard Barry Goldwater speak, he said that as a black man, he finally understood “how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” By 1968, he had endorsed Hubert Humphrey for President over old friend Richard Nixon. He’s a Republican like Frederick Douglass was a Republican: a member of a party that no longer exists.

5. Political transformation. Robinson’s ideas further changed over the last five years of his life. He disagreed with his friend Dr. King for opposing the war in Vietnam. But then the realities of the war came crashing into his own life. His son, Jackie, Jr., saw combat in Southeast Asia and returned deeply scarred—carrying a gun, jumping at shadows and addicted to drugs.

Jackie, the fervent anti-communist, began to change his own views: “As I look around today and observe how lost and frustrated and bitter our young people are, I find myself wishing that there was some way to reach out to them and let them know that we want to help. I confess I don’t know the way.”  By the end of 1968, he supported the much-criticized movement among black athletes to boycott the Olympics, writing, “I do support the individuals who decided to make the sacrifice by giving up the chance to win an Olympic medal. I respect their courage. We need to understand the reason and frustration behind these protests… it was different in my day, perhaps we lacked courage.”

In 1969, this “veteran,” “Republican” and “anti-communist” wrote, “I wouldn’t fly the flag on the fourth of July or any other day. When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.” I could very well be wrong. Maybe the film will be a politically sophisticated magnum opus. Maybe it will cover some of the above with nuance and flair. Or maybe we will be treated to yet another race and sports fable of segregation, integration and celebration. I hope not. History is often contradictory and complicated, and the best movies share these traits. Let’s hope 42 embraces—and doesn’t ignore—Jackie’s contradictions, because it’s within them that we learn the most pungent lessons for today. It’s also within them that his bravery and sacrifice can best be appreciated in full.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Five Fears About 42 (Participation)

  1. The five fears the writer is talking about to me come with the territory that Jackie Robinson is in. When you are a national hero, and have done things that at one time or another some one said was impossible people are going to remember you for that. The fears I see him talking about that deal with the kind of person Jackie was to me dont matter. If he was a republican or a democrat it doesnt matter. But another big problem is that people who would have been around the people in this time are either dead, to old to remember, or where to young to know at the time. When it comes to Branch Rickey and what he did to the negro leagues, I’d say it was a fair trade. The negro leagues fell through because now black baseball players knew they could make it to the majors. This opened up more doors for the players than it closed. I see where the writer is coming from but just think that in the grand scheme of things that none of this mattered quite as much as what Jackie, Branch, and others did to desegregate baseball.

  2. The Five Fears About the #42, did not seem to be very important to me in light of all Jackie Robinson accomplished. What his political views were, concerns with communism, and Branch Ricky did not show up in the movie at all, but why would they? The movie 42 was created in order to show how Jackie Robinson and Branch Ricky forever changed history, by integrating African Americans into America’s pastime and ultimately broke down a major barrier in the battle against segregation. I did go see the movie this weekend and I did like the movie over all. I do think that it focuses an awful lot on Branch Ricky, but he is the reason Jackie Robinson was able to be the first African American to play in the MLB, and in the movie he talks about how is doing it for money and because he wants to win. If it were not for Branch Ricky, Jackie Robinson most likely would never have been able to accomplish what he did. Another thing I saw in the movie and what sadden me was when the Dodgers went to go play in Pee Wee Reese’s home town, there is a boy in the stand sitting with his dad. When the Dodgers and Jackie come out of the dugout the fans, including the boy’s dad, start heckling and yelling at Jackie. The young boy looks confused for a minute then joins in the father yelling the “n” word repeatedly. Showing that the way we are raised and society have huge influence on the way we see and interpret race, something that we have been learning in class all year.

  3. I saw the movie the weekend it came out before reading this article not knowing any background of Jackie Robinson besides the fact he was the first African American man to play baseball in the MLB. I was really excited for this movie to learn about Jackie Robinson. I actually expected a lot more from the movie, more of a history foundation so I do agree that Hollywood does love to twist movies around. Overall I still thought it was an awesome movie and I would watch it again.Given the background that was described in this article about Branch Rickey, I feel as if the movie semi did a good fit. For not knowing anything about Branch Rickey, I did get the same feeling about that was described. Even though they showed a soft side to him, I still pictured him as only wanting nothing but money accepting the fact of what was going to happen when a African American joined the MLB. Of course they showed him have soft spot for Jackie but it is Hollywood, it wouldn’t have been a very eye pleasing movie if he didn’t. Learning about “Red” and how he had no role in the movie was interesting but they threw in the character Wendell. Although the movie shared the author of this article’s fears and didn’t really give main details of the movie, I still think the movie was informative and extremely good. I think it definitely could have given more background because I remember leaving the movie theater still a little lost but I do think that they did a great job getting the point out of what Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey had accomplished for America and what Robinson had gone through when doing so.

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