- The Jackie Robinson Story vs. The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson vs. 42Hollywood's Representations of Jackie Robinson's Legacy
According to the late baseball historian Jules Tygiel, "The Jackie Robinson story is to Americans what the Passover story is to the Jews: it must be told to every generation so that we must never forget."1 What is it about Robinson's story that we should not forget? Since his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, there have been three cinematic accounts of Robinson's story. The first generation told Robinson's story in the form of the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, which followed Robinson from childhood through his first few years with the Dodgers. The next generation retold the story in the form of the 1990 made-for-TV film The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, which, despite the title, spanned from Robinson's college career to the beginnings of his professional baseball career. The current generation told Robinson's story in the form of the 2013 Hollywood film 42, which focused solely on Robinson's time with the minor league Montreal Royals and his first season in Brooklyn. Like any other art form, film is a product of the environment and times in which it was produced. These three films span over sixty years and can provide insight into how race and racism in the United States were framed at the time of each film's release and help answer the critical question Tygiel asks in his assessment of the importance of Robinson's story: "what is it [about Robinson's story] that we should not forget?"2
Much has already been written about how The Jackie Robinson Story (Story) fits into the framing of race relations in the 1950s, as well as Robinson's overall narrative. Rob Edelman makes the argument that Story is very much a product of its era in that "as it highlights Robinson's struggle, the film acknowledges the reality of racism in America. But the scenario stresses that, in due course, fairness will prevail."3 This ideal comes through at the end of the film as the omnipotent voiceover maintains that "yes this is the Jackie Robinson story but it is not his story alone, not his victory alone, it is one that each of us shares. A story, a victory that can only happen in a country that is truly free. A country [End Page 89] where every child has the opportunity to become president or play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers."4 The film acknowledges the fact that Robinson, though a superior athlete, was denied the opportunity to coach and play at the highest levels because of his race; however, as the voiceover reminds us, Robinson was eventually given the opportunity to prove himself because America is a free country where equal opportunities are available to all. In retrospect, the voiceover is ironic due to the fact that we know it took more than fifty years after the film was released for the United States to elect a non-white president, and, as of this writing, there still has not been a female president. Equal opportunity, even in a country that is free, is still slower for some.
Alessandra Raengo argues that both the constraints of the biopic genre and Cold War considerations led the film to "showcase America's fulfillment of its democratic ideals [as the] film contains a number of strategic omissions deliberately concealing systemic racism."5 The Cold War rhetoric is highlighted in the fact that the film chooses to end with Robinson's testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). With an instrumental version of "America the Beautiful" playing in the background, Robinson states, "I do know that democracy works for those who are willing to fight for it and I'm sure it's worth defending. I can't speak for any 50 million people no one person can but I'm certain that I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country's welfare to throw it away or let it be taken from...