42 and faith: What can we learn from Black Panther’s baseball movie?

After hearing of Chadwick Boseman's untimely death, Pauline Cruz Escaño dug into the star's acting archives and found an important film that provided relevant commentary on 2020 and our faith journey.

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Chadwick Boseman. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Imagine watching a movie starring one of your favourite actors, only to wake up the next morning to news saying they’ve passed away.

You’d be dumbfounded at the coincidence, and a little bit heartbroken.

That’s just what happened to my brother Jos recently. The world was rocked and many people were surprised to hear the news that Chadwick Boseman had died from cancer. Most people were surprised to hear he’d even been sick.

Both my brother and I are big Marvel fans, and we’ve loved all the superhero movies in the series. But to see Chadwick Boseman play the hero in Black Panther meant something so much deeper to us than just witnessing another guardian defend the galaxy.

We saw ethnic representation in cinema. Finally, a hero we could resonate with. While we’re not African American, we Filipinos are people of colour. Growing up we saw a handful of actors of colour represented (if represented at all). Seeing Chadwick Boseman as the main heroic character on a blockbuster superhero film spoke volumes. It says to minority groups who traditionally never saw themselves on film that “your stories matter, and they can be told too”.

Over time, Chadwick Boseman, for us, became an icon that fought against racial injustice and a symbol of hope for more diversity in mainstream media.

So you can imagine the uncanny feeling Jos had when watching Boseman’s old film 42 one night, only to wake up to viral headlines about Boseman passing away at age 43.

My brother raved about how 42 is a must-see movie. And now having seen it, I am too.

The movie chronicles the true story of the iconic player 42, Jackie Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) defying baseball’s unjust color barrier in 1947. Thanks to the heroic act of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), Jackie, an unsigned African-American baseball player, is given the chance to play major league baseball—despite knowing they’ll face backlash from the public, press and players. And for just over two hours, you’ll watch them endure a daily fight for dignity as you enter a grim snapshot of American sports history.

But that’s not all this 2013 movie has to offer.

One could say that the movie has a lot to do with living a life of faith.

Here’s why.

(Disclaimer: Movie spoilers ahead but it is a true story and an old movie.)

“I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back”

Early in the film, we see Ricky’s attempt to convince Jackie to play for the Montreal Royals baseball team—Brooklyn’s top farm club—warning Jackie of the maltreatment that awaits him if he accepts. He foretells the harsh reality of what the first African-American playing in major league baseball can expect to experience. Ricky challenges Jackie to have enough “guts not to fight back” and to avoid  “echoing a curse with a curse”,  as the current impacts of segregation put’s Jackie at a disadvantage. If he ever engages in a fight, he is warned that he’ll be the only one to blame (not those who truly provoked him).

Instead of “meeting his enemy on his own low ground”, Ricky insists that Jackie win the hearts of the people by being a high-performing baseball player and having a sound moral compass.

Here we see a prime example of Romans 12:17,18, where the Bible instructs us that we must “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men”.  While often a difficult standard to live by (when naturally, our anger can get the best of us if we allow it), we are reminded that God calls us to leave the thought of avenging ourselves, in His hands.

“You’re the one living the sermon. In the wilderness. Only you.”

Throughout the film, we see Jackie withstand a trial of fire posed by teammates who petition against playing with him, verbal abuse from fans and players, and being denied fair access to accommodation and transport. As the viewer, you can’t help but sympathise with the player as you see injustice take place. The peak of conflict is seen where Jackie breaks down in the tunnel of the stadium dugout, after enduring bitter ridicule from Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk). As Jackie wails on his knees in fury, contemplating whether it’s worth playing in the league any longer, he is confronted by Ricky who reasons with him as to why he can’t quit: “You don’t have the right to pull out from the backing of people who believe in you . . . who need you.”

Jackie, unconvinced, retaliates with “Do you know what it’s like, having someone do this to you?!” Affirming his struggle, Ricky accepts that he may never have to fight the same battles, but begs Jackie to see that others (fellow African-Americans) will, and that only he has the power to change that narrative: “You’re the one living the sermon. In the wilderness . . . Only you . . . You’re medicine”.

The film teaches us that, in the grand scheme of things, Jackie’s perseverance and purpose to play ball far outweighs the backlash faced on the field. This display of struggle and strength is parallel to what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Until Jesus comes again, trouble will always find us. But thanks to the Rickys in our lives (aka support: friends, family, church, mentors, etc.) and the promise of God’s word, we can have hope that we’ll have the strength to carry through any challenge.

“Jackie Robinson is changing the world and refusing to let it change him.”

Throughout the film, you not only witness growth in Jackies ability to show courage, but also in the empathy of the hearts of his team mates. One highlight of the film was seeing team player Pee Wee Reese (played by Lucas Black) temporarily leave his position at shortstop to boldly put his arm around Jackie, in show of support and as a sign of racial empathy. The two look intently at the hundreds in the crowd, slowly silencing those who are screaming derogatory names at Jackie. Shortly after, Pee Wee continues to comfort Jackie by saying Maybe one day we’ll all wear 42, that way they won’t be able to tell us apart.” This one action creates a domino effect on how the other players begin to treat Jackie. From giving him the permission to shower as soon as the game finishes, through to physically catching him as he catches a ball that lands in the spectators seats, they begin to set examples of compassion and empathy, treating Jackie as an equal. These acts are witnessed by both the public and press surrounding the baseball league.

One sportswriter in particular, who also acted as Jackie’s one-man PR team, mentor and friend, Wendell Smith (played by André Holland), used his writing skills to document the journey of Jackie’s career. Towards the end of the film, we see Jackie’s team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, make it through to play at the world series. Championing both the team’s new camaraderie and history being made for African-Americans, Wendell describes Jackie in his news article, as an influencer who is changing the world and refusing to let it change him.

When it comes to sharing Jesus with people who don’t know Him yet, the Bible encourages us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” Romans 12:2. In 42, we see an example of just that a man living by faith, laser focussed on using his gifts to help fight injustice and refusing to let temptation strip him of his integrity.

I discovered this movie seven years after it was released—in 2020, a time where social injustice issues seem to be at an all time high, while the world navigates a global pandemic.

Needless to say, the Christian messages embedded in this movie spoke to me in a way that inspired hope for change, and triumph over tribulation. As I mourn the loss of the movie’s main actor, I am also celebrating the stories that his movies tell.

42 not only leaves me grateful to have the ability to hope, but also challenges me to affect positive, gospel-lead change in my community.