For millions of Americans, Jackie Robinson is more than just a baseball legend, he's a national hero. This weekend, that legacy is explored in the new biopic "42," which stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson in a film that's about more than sports or about race — it's also about how Hollywood uses sports movies to talk about race.
But is that a good thing? Or does Hollywood rely too much on sports metaphors to address racial questions?
Of course, it's beyond fitting that a movie about Jackie Robinson should be viewed as a stealth way for Hollywood to safely deal with race. After all, Robinson's great legacy isn't just that he broke the color barrier and integrated the sport by becoming the first African-American player in Major League Baseball's modern era. It's that he used our national pastime as a stealth way to change how our nation looked at itself. By making it acceptable for white fans to cheer for an African-American player, Robinson also made it easier for those same fans to accept African-Americans in general.
And just as the sports world has long been a prime agent of racial change in America, from Jesse Owens and Joe Louis to Texas Western and Tiger Woods, so too has Hollywood long relied on the sports film to safely package discussions of race in movies.
In some cases, that discussion is overt, even built right into the marketing itself. 2009's "The Blind Side" earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and landed Sandra Bullock the Best Actress award thanks to its true story about a white family that nurtured and adopted a struggling black football player. You can't get much more obvious than that — unless, of course, you're watching "Remember the Titans," which is about schools being desegregated and healed through the power of sports.
And while the list of films that tout their racial message could fill a whole column by itself ("White Men Can't Jump" being just the tip of the iceberg), you could make an equally long list of sports movies that rely on (mostly) unstated racial subtext to power their messages. "Rocky" may be an underdog story, but it's also about boxing's search for the Great White Hope. "Jerry Maguire" may not make a big deal about the fact that the agents and owners and people with power are all white while the actual working athletes are mostly black, but it's not easy to miss either. "Brian's Song" is first and foremost a story of brotherly love, but the fact that only one of the brothers is a brother is hardly incidental.
It seems clear that Hollywood views sports films as a safe and acceptable way to approach the always thorny issue of race relations in America. But is that a bad thing? On the one hand, it would be nice if mainstream Hollywood would craft more serious dramas that deal with race in a mature, adult way. While black filmmakers like Spike Lee have been trying to do this for decades, though, on the rare occasion the Hollywood machine attempts something similar, the results are often clunky and overwrought messes like 2005's "Crash."
So maybe its just as well. And in a way Hollywood's inability to hold a mature discussion about race mirrors society at large. There's a reason why sports metaphors resonate so strongly with audiences, after all, and that's because sports has been the prime agent for national discussions on race for decades. As Jackie Robinson himself showed, the right action can do more to change minds than any amount of talk.
Which may be the ultimate value of sports movies in America. It's not that we should settle for this and assume that one type of film is sufficient for addressing an issue that's so vital to the American experience, but as long as fans are discussing movies like "Cool Runnings," "Any Given Sunday" or "He Got Game," they are by extension talking about race whether they realize it or not. And one good baseball movie might change more minds than ten well-intentioned morality plays ever could.