Sunday, April 28, 2013

The First...for now...

Pee Wee Reese shows his Kentucky family who he is.
First of all, baseball movies virtually always work, at least on a minute-to-minute level for the same reason that courtroom dramas always work at the same level.  The events are constructed perfectly for drama, and especially drama to be picked up and assembled from multiple perspectives.

In courtroom drama, you get to ask a person a whole lot of questions and they're not allowed to storm out of the room in a huff.  They can refuse to answer, but that refusal is drama (and tactics) in itself.

Baseball has all the stakes of any athletic contest, with two important differences.  One is the starts and stops that many deplore about baseball, but which we aficionados appreciate as time to contemplate, meditate, consider the multiple directions the moments immediately before us can take.  For the screenplay writer, those pauses give plenty of time to build tension, conflict, multiple points of view and even to crank up the inspirational music on the soundtrack.  Second is the fact that anything can happen in a split second.  Sure, that's true in any sport.  Even soccer football must surely have its astonishing reversals (I've never stayed awake through an entire game to tell you).  But generally in those long continuous games-- football, hockey, basketball, things continue the way they started.  Unless the teams are closely matched, the outcome is readily forseeable from the outset.

But in baseball, the best team can lose and often does.  Baseball is for people who love underdogs, long shots and outcasts.  Nobody makes movies about the Yankees.  Why bother?  A bunch of overpaid arrogant jerks whose pinstripes ought to be on corporate-type suits with diamond stickpins and wing-tipped shoes.  That's not drama.  But Dem Bums is always a story waiting to be told, a story that often ends "Wait till next year."

42 (2013) is at least the fourth major go-round with the Jackie Robinson story, including the film starring Robinson, a musical called The First and a television movie, not to mention a major portion of Episode 6 of the Ken Burns series Baseball.  I must admit that I took pleasure in remembering and recognizing the story points in a tale I had heard so many times. And 42 offers up many, many movie-movie pleasures.  Ford's quirky Branch Rickey, Boseman's burning intensity, the prodigious warmth and intelligence of Nichole Beharie as Rachel Robinson, the give and take of the play on the field and the cheers and taunts of the crowd, John C. McGinley doing an excellent Red Barber, Hamish Linklater as the good-natured Ralph Branca, some old-time high-key cinematography by Don Burgess, the extremely satisfying scene illustrated above between Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Boseman's Robinson--underwritten and underplayed to perfection, the brilliant use of a young Black fan as point-of-view--a character who has his own story, as we learn at the end.  If nothing else, 42 is an immensely satisfying popcorn movie.

But this begs the question. Why tell the story again?  Why now?  Why in 2013 do we need this reminder of a partnership in courage between a member of the ruling elite of capitalism and of the underclass?

Well, I can't be the first person to have thought of it, but to me 42 read like an allegory of the Obama era.  Obama, like Robinson is The First; and, presumably, like Robinson, only the first of many.  (Can you imagine the first Female Latin President.  She would tell you What's What!)   The most important point 42 makes is that putting Robinson on the team was ONLY THE BEGINNING.  It was not enough to send him up to the majors.  The long, difficult journey had only begun.  Robinson had to demonstrate his skills, win the respect and ultimately, the loyalty, of his teammates, resist the natural desire to defend himself and to use his fists (or his mouth).  It also emphasizes that even a great hero like Robinson needs a team behind him.  In this case, not the Dodgers, but manager Rickey, writer Wendell Smith (presumably standing in for a network of African American opinion makers and fixers) and most importantly, his wife Rachel Robinson, who read and approved the script of this film.

The President and another hero, Rachel Robinson
I hope I don't offend anyone, but I was and am a supporter of President Obama.  But although I volunteered and contributed to the 2008 campaign, like a lot of his supporters, we figured getting him into office would create the usual wave of goodwill that envelops a new president and things would Start To Pop.  We were naive fools.  Getting him elected was only the beginning.  And like Robinson, Obama had to be three times as good and keep his mouth shut when being provoked by redneck morons, even (or especially) when one of the redneck morons is the minority leader of the Senate.

What's the difference between this and Ben Chapman
shouting "Nigger nigger nigger" at Jackie Robinson?
Listen, I get it that it is necessary and desirable to have a wide range of political opinion in our country. Our Constitution is designed to force people to acknowledge each others' points of view and to hammer out solutions that provide positive outcomes for as many people as possible.  Anyone who says compromise is un-American is an illiterate jackass who does not understand the Constitution or the temper of the Founders.  And vigorous abuse has a long history in our country.  Abraham Lincoln was called an ape, and a US Representative beat a Senator with a stick on the floor of the Senate.

But what we have today is different. I am up for debate based on the facts (not the facts you make up yourself, but actual verifiable-by-multiple-independent-sources-facts), history and logic.  But that is not what much of the opposition to Obama is about.  It's about ignorant, atavistic fear, the tribal fear that "our group" will not have enough resources to withstand assault from the "other group."

Well, they're still playing baseball.  Black, white, Latin, Asian and every possible combination and permutation thereof.  And the sport is making more money than ever.  American will similarly survive President Obama and both his principled and his racist opponents.  But 42 reminds us that the fight is long and hard, and we never get to declare the battle over.  Not if we're still battling idiot racism 66 years after Robinson came up to The Big Show.

Michele Obama asked it herself at the White House screening of 42"You're left just asking yourselves, how on Earth did they live through that?  How did they do it?"  Just what we tell our students (I teach high school in the inner city, if you didn't know).  Perseverance.  Character.  Courage. Grit.  42 is much more than a biopic and much much more than a baseball picture.  It is our Beowulf our Iliad, the warrior who slays the monster, who slays the thousands of enemy troops, who represents our best, the person for whom we create the word "hero."