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Living the Sermon: A Review of 42

  • Film: 42
  • Reviewed by: Joseph Breslin
  • Content Warning: Intense racial slurs, Language, Sexuality
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • Age Recommendation: 12+

Jackie Robinson’s Story

When Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey cooks up a plan to add a black man to the roster, he knows there will be pushback. “You break a law and get away with it,” says an advisor, “and some people will think you’re smart. You break an unwritten law; you’ll be an outcast.” “So be it,” says Rickey. The year is 1945, and the man for the job is Jackie Robinson. Starring the late Chadwick Boseman (of Marvel fame) and Harrison Ford, 42 chronicles Jackie’s rise and the crucible of racism through which he passed to become the first black Major League Baseball player. Not only does the film strongly emphasize the necessity of Christian faith for any real social progress, it also raises interesting questions about the intersection of moral values and the profit motive, and it features an actor, Chadwick Boseman, who would soon face his own real-life drama of private suffering. 

The narrative is told in part through the keystrokes of Wendell Smith (André Holland), a black sports journalist from the Pittsburgh Courier whom Rickey hires as Robinson’s liaison and right-hand man. When Rickey brings Robinson into the Dodgers’ farm club, the Montreal Royals, he knows he must take steps to insulate Jackie and his new wife Rae (Rachel) from the racism they’ll experience. It falls to Wendell to drive the couple around, to help situate the Robinsons in private lodgings where they can escape structural forms of racism, and to keep Jackie’s spirits up and his head straight when the inevitable storms come. And, as both Wendell and Rickey frequently remind him, a lot is riding upon Jackie’s spirit.

The soulful Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson as a man whose fierce passions mirror his athletic abilities. Jackie’s not a man to take abuse lying down, but to succeed in this venture, Rickey tells Jackie that he must imitate Jesus Christ. “Like our Savior, you gotta have the guts to turn the other cheek,” says Rickey. But this is easier said than done. In the course of the film, Jackie endures a petition organized by teammates who want him ousted, credible threats on his family, personal injuries on the field, miscarriages of officiating, and—in a scene that is hard to watch—a litany of the most vile racist abuse hurled at him while he stands at the plate. Yet were he to respond in kind, Jackie knows that his anger would only be used against him as proof that this black man is out of control and unfit to play with the whites. “I don’t care if they like me,” Jackie says to his wife. “I don’t even care if they respect me. I know who I am. But I don’t want them to beat me … today they came close.” Branch Rickey, whose motivations in all this are at first hard to pin down, consoles Jackie in a dark moment by reminding him that he’s “living the sermon.” According to Rickey, race prejudice is a social sickness, and Jackie Robinson is medicine. 

Suffering as Antidote

Writer/director Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale) does a good job of portraying both the sickness and its cure. The mechanisms that once enforced racism on an institutional level are shown to have been rooted in false community values, values that may have even seemed like morality to those in their orbit. Racist teammates are motivated by fears of what their family and friends will think of them. Phillies’ general manager Herb Pennock is similarly motivated by fears of how Philadelphians will react when Robinson comes to town. In one poignant scene, a white child in the stands who clearly has no native animosity for Robinson joins in the abuse in imitation of his father. The camera pans back to the boy’s face after the crowds’ sympathy turns in Robinson’s favor, and we get to see the boy’s regret at having cooperated with what he knew to be wrong. In these ways, Helgeland shows viewers that at least a significant portion of the evil of racism is spread through social contagion and imitation, and that it can be similarly unlearned, if only society be given a powerful counter-example.

In 42, Jackie Robinson is that counter-example. He is a man reluctantly forced into Christ’s role of the suffering servant, the man strong enough to take the abuse without doing the “manly” thing in response. Jackie finds this a hard pill to swallow, and the unnatural—or supernatural—burden nearly overcomes him. After having his calf deliberately spiked and then being baited by journalists to point out the obvious, it seems like Jackie can’t win. Yet it is because of these public abuses that the tide begins to turn. “Sympathy,” says Rickey. “It’s a Greek word that means ‘to suffer.’” Rickey understands that Robinson’s public sufferings, manfully endured and combined with genuine athletic ability, will be the very “medicine” that baseball needs. Robinson’s spirits are slowly lifted when Rickey’s prophetic words come true, and his trials elicit support and loyalty not only from black baseball fans but from white fans who, either quietly supportive all along or converted by his example, get behind him. When the winds shift, the same general manager who previously tried to bar Robinson from Philadelphia forces the racist Ben Chapman to take a photo with him. This change, incidentally, highlights one of the film’s unanswered questions: What is the relationship between moral values and the profit motive?

That relationship is shown to be ambiguous at best. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher has no problem with a black man playing ball, but Durocher is also a pragmatist and an adulterer whose very lack of morality may make him partially immune to the pseudo-values that underlie racism. The previously mentioned Pennock and Chapman publically change their tune when the social atmosphere changes. Even Rickey’s motivations are partly profit-driven. The film floats the question of the nexus of profits and morality without ever trying to answer it, but a possible answer is as follows: in order for Robinson to succeed, it was not enough for him to practice heroic self-abnegation; he also had to be good at his job. Similarly, real progress has to be made practicable, and that means economical. There is therefore no necessary contradiction between economic profit and social progress; they are distinct phenomena with distinct aims. Still, authentic progress, no matter how profitable, requires heroic action and almost necessarily implies struggle against the status quo. Rae Robinson says as much when she whispers to her husband from the stands to “steal that base. Take it!” Putting his team’s need before his own suffering, Robinson steals his way to glory, but the actor who portrayed him would soon face his own crucible.

Character and Grit

In 2016, three years after 42’s release, Chadwick Boseman was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. In the same year, he played the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War and would go on to play him in three more Marvel films, including the billion-dollar grossing Black Panther. While on the set of the latter and subsequent films, Boseman was slowly dying. His co-stars didn’t know that he was suffering, because Boseman did not wish for people to “fuss over him.” Sometime before 2020, the cancer progressed to stage IV. Only a handful of non-family members were let in on the secret that this promising superstar was in private agony. He would go on to complete several more films while enduring multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. A friend would later recall how Boseman, while shooting back-to-back movies, went out of his way to help him with his own, and at a time when Boseman was actually nearing the end of his short life. He kept his struggle so quiet, not wishing to burden anyone, that its announcement in 2020 seemed to come out of nowhere. I do not know much of Boseman’s religious views, aside from the fact that he believed in a God whose will shapes our lives, but the fact that such a man portrayed Jackie Robinson lends that performance all the more gravity in hindsight. 

42 is an excellent and uplifting film that highlights the need for heroic personal virtue in the fight for authentic moral progress. The movie goes out of its way to connect human flourishing to spiritual values, and to an explicitly Christian narrative. Parents should be aware that 42’s protagonist is subjected to a litany of racist abuse that goes far beyond the N-word, including terms that most modern children—thanks to the progress of the last eighty years—will have never heard. There’s also discussion of Leo Durocher’s adultery and a scene of him sitting in bed with his paramour. All of the above is portrayed negatively, but it would be difficult to imagine watching these scenes, particularly the racist abuse, with someone under the age of ten. Still, while we benefit from the struggles of men like Jackie Robinson and the careful planning of men like Branch Rickey, it is important that we not forget the evils from which they’ve helped to liberate us, nor the authentic progress that’s still possible when Christ-like virtue faces off against established forms of wickedness.  

About the Author

Joe Breslin

Fifth Grade Homeroom

The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Joe Breslin teaches writing, and other homeroom subjects at the Heights School. In 2022, he published Other Minds: 13 Tales of Wonder and Sorrow. His next collection of speculative fiction, Hearts Uncanny, will be released late summer of 2024. Samples of his fiction and his essays can be found at

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