Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Real Racism: 42 & Dimensions Of the American Dream

One of the first lessons we learned in film criticism was that every movie is particularly situated within a historical context: there is a reason why a film is being made now, and not five years ago, or five years from now, there are certain cultural "ingredients" in the formula of a film--why it's made the way it's made--which provides a culture with the catharsis it needs. Brian Helgeland's 42 relates to us the story of famed, first African-American Major League baseball player in the US, Jackie Robinson, his struggle and the struggles of those who stood with him and how those who stood against him lost. Why are we being told this story today? Simple: it directly conflicts with the story being fed to us by the media.
"In a game divided by color, he made us see greatness." That's the way it should be, that talent, skill, determination, and raw ambition can break down any barrier falsely created between people in the brotherhood of humanity. Jackie Robinson is an American Legend, not only because of his skills and talents, not only because of his incredible battles he relentlessly fought on the field and off because of the color of his skin, but for both. It's not just the one or the other that makes a great American, but the personal and the professional battle one wages which inspires their fellow Americans and burns their story upon our hearts. This is a great story for everyone to watch, because Jackie Robinson isn't just a modern father of the Black population in America, Jackie Robinson is a modern father for all Americans, because his story is our story, and his success is our success. The re-telling of his story today, of all times, is meant to unite us together as a country, not divide us along lines of color.
As long-time readers of this blog know, when the first trailer came out, I dreaded the film; why? It's not because of racism, especially as the film defines it, but because of liberal-media brainwashing, and the same holds true for why I was so reluctant to watch Beasts of the Southern Wild, a radically pro-capitalist, pro-America film. Liberals have beat the drum so relentlessly that all Black Americans must be Democrats, that seeing the trailer, I thought, this must be a comparison with Obama and trying to indoctrinate us that a socialist can play the capitalist game of baseball, too, just turning Moneyball upside-down. I am so perfectly grateful and humble to confess how totally wrong I was,.... 
Harrison Ford stars as Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers who decides he's going to bring a Black player into his club and convinces his staff to help him look for the right man, finally deciding upon Robinson. Why would Rickey risk so much trouble, scandal and social standing to debunk the "social norms" of the time? Initially, Rickey tells his staff that the Black community goes to watch baseball, and the American dollar isn't white or black, it's green, and he wants to tap that market. That's absolutely correct, recognizing the "purchasing power" of a demographic is directly linked to their political power, and if you don't believe me, you don't remember how the boycotts staged by our colonial ancestors strained the British Parliament (and boycott is a power directly referenced in the film). Later, when they are really facing troubles, Robinson asks Rickey directly why Rickey brought him into the club, and Rickey relates that there was a talented player he knew but didn't do anything to help him then, so he was making up for it by helping Robinson (we will watch the clip below when we talk about Jackie). Was Rickey wrong in not helping that player when he was younger? That's a tempting question to ask, but the best answer is another question: Was Rickey in a position to help that player, or any other player, at that point? No, and therein we find another underlying, pro-capitalist theme of the film, that those on top--such as Branch Rickey--are obligated to help those on the bottom/right the wrongs they have seen as they have worked their way up. Such a situation begs for comparison with other films we have seen as of late: for example, Tony Stark leaving that awesome garage to little Harley for helping Tony out when he was so desolate in Iron Man 3; or Captain Pike giving Kirk a second chance in Star Trek Into Darkness; Burt and Anton including Jane in their act in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and Ralph bringing in the retired game figures into his game in Wreck-It Ralph. On the other hand, we can see the exact opposite happening in Pain and Gain, when Daniel knows he wants to "leave America a better place," but really just leaves America with more corpses, which is also what we see in Spring Breakers. This is how we can say that the story of Jackie Robinson is also the story of us, of American capitalism, of an example of a broken system--our race relations--and the story of the fixing of that system with our common interests uniting us through the greatness of our people, in this case, Jackie Robinson and the one, single white man who risked everything to right that wrong, and continued to do so.
There can be no doubts at all that this is a solidly pro-capitalist film, not only because Rickey utilizes his own capital to become Robinson's patron, but because Robinson is directly benefited by that capital as evidenced by his ability to marriage Rachel. Before we get too far into the film, let's start analyzing the traditional symbols of the "motherland" as evidenced by Rachel, and the "economy" as we see in Jackie. As you know, women of child-bearing age symbolize "the motherland" because a country gives "birth" to us and who we are, just as our mother gave birth to us. Intensely aware of the reality of the situation, the film gives us both a false example of how Rachel could be a motherland image, and then the genuine example. 
It's so subtle the way the film does it, but when Jackie knows he's going to be on the Dodgers, he calls Rachel--our first introduction to her character--and tells her, "We've done everything right, we've played by the rules, will you marry me?" and Jackie's right, up to that point, they have played by the rules, with Rachel finishing college and Jackie working at his skills in baseball so they can have a secure, financially independent future. But now, their game has changed, and so, too, have the rules, and their stadium is a far larger arena then either of them could have imagined, so "playing by the rules" isn't going to cut it anymore; they have to adapt their strategy because the game has changed, and that's the game of social change. It would have been too easy for the film to not have realistically shown Rachel being reprimanded for using the White Only restroom, instead, it takes the time to create that situation for us so people like myself who were born after the Jim Crow laws were abolished see the deeper dimensions of REAL RACISM, of one race, Whites, putting themselves above another group of people simply because the color of their skin is black. According to member of the liberal media and the Black community, racism is alive and well today: anytime someone criticizes Obama for his handling of the economy, or for the numerous, lavish vacations they take, or Eric Holder's Department of Justice for failing to administer justice equally, or the epidemic scandals of incompetence plaguing the administer, the defenders call out "Racist!" when race--the color of Obama's skin--has nothing to do with it.  
Traveling with Jackie, Rachel sees her first public restroom marked "White Only" at the airport, and decides to break down the social barrier and use the White Only restroom; Rachel's defiance is seen by the receptionist at the desk who retaliates against Rachel by bumping them off their flight. This is one way, the film posits, that Rachel could have been the "motherland" figure in the film (doing what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would do in protesting against the Jim Crow laws), but seeing that her action "bears no fruit," the film posits this as a false attempt so we look at where her actions do bear fruit; why? It's the race question at its very heart, because society sets up rules of the game to insure those who created the rules maintain the position they want to maintain (in this case, Whites deciding their territory and what they will "permit" Blacks to have so Blacks are necessarily NOT in the power equation because Whites are the ones determining the social space where Blacks are "permitted" to be or forbidden from being), so, in this "simple scene," the film has introduced an entirely new level of "game" that will be played by Rachel, not by Jackie, and as we see in this clip, what she learned, she passes onto him:
Rachel has literally become Jackie's social coach, as she stands behind him, whispering to him the "plays" that are going to be made against him and how he needs to adjust his strategy to adapt to what they are going to "throw at him," just like the pitcher throwing the ball at Jackie's head during a game. Rachel is "giving birth" to Jackie Robinson just like Jackie's father figure, Branch Rickey, both of them working to help Jackie not only stay in the game he has to play on the field--but also the one off the field, in the locker room and press conferences--but to win the game and make a path for others to follow in his step which is also part of the American Dream. Coaching Jackie is how Rachel bears fruit because it's watching Jackie play that Rachel realizes she's pregnant, literally, she is going to bear the fruit of their love for each other. Rachel could have discovered anywhere, or at any time she was pregnant, but the film plots this in a specific way.
Andre Holland stars as Wendell Smith, a reporter assigned to help Jackie by Rickey. Jackie rather despises Wendell, resenting his presence, largely because Jackie knows he needs Wendell but doesn't want to. Wendell relates to us another dimension of capitalism: just as Rickey's success in baseball has put him in a position to aide Jackie, so Jackie's rising star puts him in a position to aide Wendell. As an aspiring sports commentator, Wendell also faces segregation--being forced to sit in the balcony with his typewriter on his lap, as we see in this picture, rather than in the box with the other reporters--and he doesn't hesitate to communicate this to Jackie.
First, as we mentioned, it's during Jackie playing that she gets her first bout of sickness. All great things are born of great suffering, and her moment of sickness foreshadows the abuse Jackie will have to take to "bear fruit" for something far greater. What happens, though? It's not in the White Only bathroom where Rachel discovers it, but in the Colored bathroom, and from another Black woman who tells her; why? Because it's the Black community recognizing that Jackie and Rachel are doing something FOR THEM, not Branch Rickey doing something for White people or his pocket book, but Rachel's and Jackie's courage and perseverance that has given "new life" (in the form of their baby) to the whole population of Blacks in America. Rachel--as is natural for humans--focuses on her being sick, the way she focuses on Jackie's abuse he has to take, but this is the role of art: to tell a story. When we hear a phrase like, "The Jackie Robinson Story," the technical term "story" doesn't get applied unless someone has seen therein the redeeming values for society at large of a beginning, a conflict and successful resolution that everyone will be able to identify with and champion. But Rachel isn't the only one "giving birth" in this film, and that leads us to Branch Rickey. 
An essential character to the film, Christopher Meloni portrays Dodgers' manager Leo Durocher, who resolves, with Rickey, to have Jackie play on the team and--in the scene above--forcibly puts down the revolt against members of the team who have petitioned to stop Jackie from joining the team. Leo, a strong, forceful figure just like his name suggests, represents several key elements of the story line: first, in ordering the team--regardless of their beliefs or values--to accept Jackie as one of them, he could be taken as a "strong government" mandating affirmative action. Similarly, and without contradiction, he can also be taken as aggressive capitalism seeing Jackie only as a means to the end of winning games and making more money (we can validate this because the speech above takes place in "the kitchen," the place where the appetites are satisfied, and Leo is seeing Jackie as a means to making more money by winning more games). The truth is, Leo has to go because he is the one who doesn't have a place in the scheme of the film, or the American Dream (more on this in just a moment). Leo is replaced by Burt Shotton, who addresses the Dodgers with a weak speech, that he won't hurt them even if he doesn't help them. What's that all about? Well, that kind of summarizes what the government should do, and not do. It's about the free market and not interfering the way Leo was going to force the issue of Jackie being accepted, and this is where 42 makes the stand of being free to "fight your own battles" and not let the government fight them for you. To make the point, the film changed the reason why Leo Durocher was suspended, from gambling in reality to adultery in the film. Why? In the film, Leo is having an affair with a married woman, and the Catholic League threatens to boycott Dodgers' games if Rickey doesn't punish Leo for his adultery, which Rickey knows is taking place. This deliberate change from the historical record inserts the film makers' values against sexual promiscuity and breaking up marriages (while also validating the power of consumers to boycott). So even while the viewer laments Leo being thrown out for not abiding by the rules of the game--he proves that he is not a gentleman in taking another man's wife, whereas Jackie proves himself to be a gentleman in forgiving players who have insulted and abused him--and we fear what will happen to Jackie because Burt is so weak, Jackie's strength prevails, and so, too, does the strength of Whites like Pee Wee and Rickey, even as racism heats up in the game. From a different angle, Leo's taking of a woman who doesn't belong to him adds a particularly racist angle to the film: is baseball, a "White man's game," being taken by a Black man (Jackie Robinson) like taking another man's wife? No, because the heart of the games, the heart of competition itself, is that it belongs to the one with the greatest skill, not someone of a particular educational background, or social standing, someone with ties or other extra-topical advantages, and this is how we can see sports and competition being a great "leveller" in society, because of Jackie's skills and determination, his finesse in navigating the social field as well as the playing field, he proves that the laws of society are unjust and naturally brings down that which was artificially created: laws of "separate but equal."     
As an older man, past the age of "fathering a child," Rickey symbolizes the "founding father," a man who helps to formulate or establish tradition, law/cultural norms; just as George Washington did in politics, so Branch Rickey does in baseball. In this clip below, we see Rickey fulfilling the traditional "social norms" of the American Dream (that when you've made it, you are culturally obligated to help others), the payoff for "taking a risk," the heart of the capitalist venture, and the joy of "doing the right thing," the basis of the American Dream:
It's time now to discuss who Jackie Robinson is in the film. We talked about Rachel being a motherland figure, and the little boy Rickey mentions pretending to be Jackie at the start of the clip above is an example of how Jackie "fathers" and bears fruit: creating a way for other Black players to make it to the top of baseball, a role model of how all Americans should conduct themselves and a standard of what a great baseball player is (regardless of race). When Jackie first holds his newborn son (that he has with Rachel), he talks to his son and announces, for the viewers, who Jackie Robinson really is (I couldn't find the clip, but it's at the start of this trailer):
Who is the "father" who left him? Slavery. Men of child-bearing age, like Jackie, symbolize the active force of the economy or economic principles. In real life, Jackie Robinson was born into a system of slavery in the form of sharecropping which evolved at the end of the Civil War, and in its way it was just as much a system of slavery as that on southern plantations before the Civil War. The film presents us with the way art chooses how and what to take of "true stories" from history: the film didn't have to mention Jackie's father leaving him, it could have dropped it or changed it, like changing the circumstances of Leo's departure from the team, instead, in mentioning Jackie's father leaving him, it invites us to reflect upon it and understand how--in a greater, artistic scheme--we should understand a moral or cultural truth, the same way we are to understand Leo's leaving the team in a bigger frame of the story. So, let's take up the invitation.
When Jackie signs this contract, in effect, he signs the papers of adoption to become the "son" of Branch Rickey. Why? Branch becomes the father figure, the figure of both capitalism and the American Dream, that Jackie's childhood in sharecropping didn't know, but knows now through Rickey's determination, courage and, yes, capital in being in a position to do something about the wrongs he sees. Signing his name to that contract, Jackie Robinson BECOMES Jackie Robinson because he agrees to the terms and conditions set forth in the exchange of his talent--what we know Jackie Robinson for being--for a set salary, a uniform and a number, i.e., the RIGHT to play Major League baseball, and the right to get to sign a contract in exchange for his skills, and the right to MARKET his skills for the best contract he can get. In signing the contract, he becomes the first Black man to get a Major League contract, i.e., he becomes the man history will remember, Jackie Robinson; likewise, Branch Rickey becomes a "founding father" of baseball, a man who will be remembered for shaping baseball as a field upon which the wrongs of social injustice can be corrected, an endeavor of personal greatness for men like Jackie and an arena for ambition of an entire segment of the population. This scene above is possible because of both the American Dream and capitalism working together, one advancing the other, to advance all.
Just as many people don't remember slavery (the way I know nothing about Jim Crow laws, except what I have heard from older family members and seen in documentaries and read in books), Jackie doesn't (in the film) remember slavery but he vows the future generations (symbolized by his son) will remember him, the man who broke the invisible bonds of slavery in society holding him and other Blacks down on the social and economic ladder through competition on and off the field in all its forms, natural and unnatural. So Jackie Robinson not only becomes a "father" of social reform, but a "father" of the economic engines of society as well because boycott is directly tied to Jackie's role as he advances throughout the film, as well as the purchasing power of audiences going to see Jackie play.  
Choice. At any time, Jackie can throw in the towel and quit, but he doesn't. He fights the fight and plays the game on every level. Here's a controversial note: Jackie excels at "stealing" bases. Now, let's consider this. In the clip above, Rickey tells Jackie that if Jackie answers a curse with a curse, the only curse heard will be Jackie's, and he has to make everyone see that he is a "fine gentleman and a great ball player," by having the guts to NOT fight back; why? The rules of Jim Crow laws favor the whites and those who will use Jackie's color against him, like the manager of the Pirates making all the terrible racist slurs against Jackie on the field; again, the social laws favor him, but it's Jackie who comes out on top because Jackie turns the rules against the Whites by keeping "his place" and making Whites "take down" the laws themselves (such as when Jackie's team mate tells Jackie he shouldn't wait to shower until everyone else has left, that he's part of the team and should join them). What we have, in this scenario the film presents, is an example of "play." As defined by philosophers, "game" is established by a set of rules to benefit the ruling class (for example, if I wanted to become a basketball player, it would be incredibly difficult for me because I am only five-foot-two, so it limits the number of players eligible to compete for those desirable positions on the team). "Play" is philosophically defined as the absence of rules or the creative interpretation of rules to create a not-so-obvious advantage (like a short player using the rules to get fouled in basketball so they can get lots of free throws; that's a part of the rules, but an exploitation of the rules). In this way, we can see how, on two levels in the film, Jackie "steals" bases: in the game on and on the field, but also off the field each time he gets "closer" and more "in" with the team. "Stealing bases" has a negative connotation, although it's permitted by the rules and obviously shows up the "incompetence of the pitchers," as they put it in the film. Who else "steals" in films lately? Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit (and Diane [Melissa McCarthy] is compared to Bilbo in Identity Thief). We haven't yet gone into The Hobbit, however, anyone stealing something from a dragon can be said to be a "holy thief" (like St. Dismas who died upon the cross beside Christ) because the dragon symbolizes the devil and the treasure being "stolen" is what was lost by humanity in Original Sin. In a like vein, the bases Jackie Robinson "steals" in the film are the bases symbolizing the natural standing and civil rights denied to Jackie and Blacks that are rightfully theirs.  
As a culture, we not only remember Jackie Robinson for what he did socially, historically and economically, but we will remember 42 later this year because of the arguments it posits against an upcoming film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. In the sequel to The Hunger Games due out in November, Katniss and other contestants in the 75th Hunger Games are going to try and destroy the arena which makes the Games possible so as to start a revolution to overthrow the capitol. In the image above, we see the marginalized player, all alone, facing tremendous odds against his happiness and success, getting himself ready to take on the challenges awaiting him in the very same arena The Hunger Games series wants to do away with in favor of socialism. Competition isn't about victory, it's about finding out who you are and what you can do, under harsh circumstances, and coming out a better person for it and making the world a better place. A film like 42 not only validates competition, like we have seen in Monsters University, The Internship and Moneyball, but validates the struggles we endure in adversity: the best in us and others is brought out in struggle and everyone benefits.
Lucas Black portrays the Dodgers' short stop, Pee Wee Reese. When Jackie first comes to the team, reporters question Pee Wee about Jackie playing short stop and if Jackie is going to steal Pee Wee's position on team and Pee Wee responds, that if Jackie does a better job, he deserves the position. That's the way it should be, Pee Wee is willing to compete and improve his skills to get better and defend his place on team, he's not "entitled" to keep his position just because he's White or he had it first. Jackie, on the other hand, is not "entitled" to be short stop just because that's the role he plays or because he's Black. Jackie adapts to what the team needs and learns a new skill, being a baseman, so he can contribute to what the team needs. In the scene above, Pee Wee had received a threatening letter and he talked to Rickey about it, who showed Pee Wee files of hate mail Jackie was receiving. Manning up, Pee Wee finally realized the stress Jackie was under and "stands" with Jackie in this scene, regardless of the personal or professional cost. Being team mates, Pee Wee genuinely becomes a team mate with Jackie socially and professionally. Why is this important? It allows Pee Wee to discover who he really is by bringing out the circumstances for Pee Wee to have to make a decision of what he believes and giving him the chance to prove it to himself and everyone else. Adversity is never welcomed in our lives, but we can always turn it around to bring the greatest good from it, and the many moments of 42 amply demonstrates and reminds us of the choices we face daily and what we should be doing with our free will. 
Dear readers, THIS IS A FILM MAKING A DIFFERENCE, this is a film seeing the situation as it is, and recognizing the power each of us has on an individual level to do something about it, regardless of the color of our skin. This is a film that, just like Branch Rickey using his resources to support what he knew in his heart was right, is also using its resources to support what it knows is right: the freedom of each person to make their own choices, the freedom of each person to face and fight their own battles, and the freedom of each person to win those battles--not only for themselves and those they love--but for a far greater good as well as opposed to investing total power in the government to make all our decisions for us. Without hesitation, we can say that just as Mr. Jackie Robinson iss an American among Americans, 42 is a film among films. Eat Your Art Out, The Fine Art Diner
It would be a racist victory to merely say, Just as Jackie Robinson "reflects" upon himself in this scene, so, too, should the entire Black community "reflect" on their history, as a community and personally; because all of us, regardless of color, religion, sex or class, face the challenges Jackie faces at some point in our lives, at some point, all of us face being discriminated against because we are female, we are Christian, we are patriots, we come from a lower-economic strata of society, we are old and have to make way for the new, etc., and all of us, in some situation, find ourselves in the minority, just like Jackie, and the lessons Rickey and Rachel teach Jackie apply to us all, everyday of our lives. Many will see this and say, "That's why I want the government to fight my battles for me," and opt for socialism and affirmative action, but others, like myself, would rather fight my personal battles and claim my personal victories, and we are all in a position in history right now to where we must take a stand and decide what we want, and, ultimately, what is right.