Friday, April 19, 2013

"42" Is a Classic Portrait of a Classic Hero


I like to think about classic literary forms and apply them to unusual, contemporary figures. In doing so, I refresh my understanding of old patterns while re-discovering the relevance of those old forms. The recent film, “42,” is an excellent exercise in analyzing heroes.

Jackie Robinson, at least in his onscreen incarnation, tries to step away from the label, hero. He says he’s just a baseball player, but events will not let such unassuming humility stand. Small boys dream about being as gifted as Robinson, and black children can dream of possibilities, new and unimaginable before, all because Robinson excelled as a ball player and man. His struggles transform him into a leader, charged with being excellent--nay, superhuman, meeting Aristotle’s criteria for a man of lofty status and good intentions. Robinson is indeed lofty; he’s a star on the field of dreams and a star in qualities such as reserve, determination, and dignity.

Another criterion foreseen by Aristotle is mortal feet of clay--a flaw that endangers the hero’s ability to fulfill his promise. For Oedipus, that flaw is Fate and his unfounded pride in being Thebes’ savior. He doesn’t know at first, then doesn’t heed the Oracle or Teiresias when each warns him that he’s born under a bad sign, that heinous deeds are in his DNA, and that his suffering is inevitable.

Robinson’s suffering is also inevitable; it too is in his DNA. As a consequence of the time in which he was born, his race is his burden, perceived as a flaw in his nature by a prejudiced majority. But something else is in his nature, and that something is also his burden to bear. Robinson has an clear sense of justice. He knows that he has done nothing to deserve subjugation, and his natural instinct is to fight back, to defy. But Mr. Branch Rickey, General Manager for the Dodgers, believes that fighting will never beat back prejudice, fear and ignorance. Rickey coaches Robinson to win the hearts and minds of a nation by summoning his innate capacity for dignity and reserve.

Still, like all heroes, Robinson is human. Some words and deeds bring him to an edge but retaliation, while momentarily satisfying, would only feed preconceived notions about black men. Retaliation would ruin Robinson’s chances for success. He would fall, never to rise and play again. On the other hand, with extraordinary reserve, he will preserve his dignity and slight by slight, blow by blow, he will earn pity and admiration, the very qualities that Aristotle demands from an audience. This is what Mr. Branch Rickey believes will happen; this is how Mr. Rickey imagines the world of baseball will change, but Robinson alone must live the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to (Hamlet). He must suffer and overcome against terrible odds.

Like the Aristotlean hero, Robinson inspires our dread. We fear being brought as low as he, lower than any court of law would demand. We wonder how we would fare if faced with the same opponents. Yet Robinson simultaneously inspires our awe. We stand in amazement because one man, brought low, rises from the depths. He is a hero, and we acknowledge that he represents a standard to which the rest of us might aspire.

In addition, like Homer’s epic hero, Robinson’s fate determines the fate of a nation. Thanks to him, we have become more whole. We stepped upon a national path that we must hope will one day deliver us to a place where our consciences are clear and our Constitution sacrosanct.

Reading Challenge:

Read the movie, “42.”

Writing Challenge:

Tell the story of a man or woman whose fate changes the fate of a nation for better.