There are few conflicts more dramatic than the battle for racial integration, particularly during the turbulent years of mid-twentieth century America. 42’s Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first player of color in Major League Baseball, is a ferociously talented athlete who struggles to overcome the rampant bigotry of the game in the post-WWII era. A quarter-century later, Remember the Titans’ ace football coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) faces the unenviable task of integrating two racially separated high school football squads in Virginia, the cradle of the Confederacy.
Both of these characters are resilient, heroic fighters who triumph over the narrow-mindedness of their times. Each overcomes long odds and passionate opposition to push his country in the right direction and his team to glory. And without them both, who knows, we might not have anything more fun to watch on weekends than NASCAR and golf.
Clearly, both these contenders have got an incredible will to win, but only one can be Smackdown champion. Batter up!
It’s just after World War II and despite their sacrifices in combat, African-Americans still suffer in a nation strangled by Jim Crow laws. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is both gnawed by guilt over the exclusionary policies of his game, and clever enough to realize that some of its best players are shunted away in the Negro leagues. He cherry-picks one of their top young hopefuls for development in his organization.
Luckily for everyone concerned, that young hopeful is Robinson, a tough, resourceful and gifted athlete with the stuff to overcome the intimidation of being the only black man in a lily-white sport. To say that he blossoms when given the chance is an understatement. He bats over .600 in minor league ball, earning a quick and deserved promotion. When the 1947 season opens, he’s wearing Dodger blue and coming up to the plate at Brooklyn’s legendary Ebbets Field. This doesn’t sit well with a great many white fans, not to mention most players. Even some of his own teammates are disgusted by the idea of playing alongside a man with the temerity to have a different skin tone, and they threaten mutiny if he’s not booted from the team.
The rebellion is thwarted, but that’s only the beginning of the abuse. Ugly taunts always seem to rain on #42 from dumb crackers like Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who fastballs slurs at him from the dugout. None of this, however, can stop the indomitable Robinson from playing the game he loves. He might even help “Dem Bums,” as Brooklynites call the team, reach the World Series.
The Defending Champion
Civil rights caught up rapidly in the 1960s, but occasionally society wasn’t so quick to follow. Remember the Titans grafts this development onto the old colonial enclave of Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. Already-high tensions between blacks and whites reach fever pitch in the town following the death of a young African-American at the hands of a Caucasian store owner. The mass anger threatens to spill over into rioting and widespread civic discord.
It’s probably not the best atmosphere, then, for a Negro — as his people were called at the time in polite society — to take over as the football coach of a newly integrated high school. Yet that’s the unenviable job given to Boone, who has to contend not only with a potential race war but also with an ambitious lame-duck coach (Bill Yoast, played by Will Patton) whose job he’s taken, and a mob of irate townspeople prone to throwing bricks through his living room window. There’s also the headache of fusing together two separate football squads divided sharply along ethnic lines. As if all of the above weren’t enough, Boone is told in no uncertain terms that he’ll be fired if his team loses so much as a single game.
What’s a beleaguered coach on the wrong side of the color line to do? Well, if you’re Boone you plow ahead determinedly, force integration on your squad by having black and white teammates bunk together in football camp, hire the man you replaced to be defensive coordinator, and while you’re at it, completely thrash the competition. If you really do your job well, you might even take your now-multiethnic team to the state finals.
Both movies are sharp, well made, entertaining tributes to the power of tolerance and the victories it can produce both on and off the field. Both have strong main characters at the heart of their respective dramas. Boseman, in his first big-budget leading role, essays an engaging and likeable Jackie without grandstanding, a tricky feat given the pressure and turmoil his character endures in the film. Washington’s Boone is a tough, resolute stoic, navigating his conflicts mainly through the sheer force of a very considerable will. Both men are easy to root for and compelling to watch, although the edge here goes to Boseman, who colors Jackie in a more subtle way and leaves the stronger impression of a man struggling against massive odds.
The focus of 42 is a little narrower, though, as it must be in any biopic. For the most part, we see the proceedings only through Robinson’s eyes. That’s necessary and it’s interesting, but it leaves a slight feeling that we missed the opportunity to spend more time with other interesting characters in the story — like the slow-talking, bible-quoting Rickey, or the grumpy team manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), who has a penchant for cheating on his wife with Hollywood actresses.
Remember the Titans does a very good job covering the sub-stories of its secondary characters. Plenty of screen real estate is devoted to the team’s players, who after all are the people directly shouldering the burden of integration. The arc of white squad captain Gerry (Ryan Hurst) from mistrustful ignoramus to King of Tolerance is particularly well sketched and acted without seeming contrived. The same could be said for his black counterpart and ultimately best friend, the emotional Julius (Wood Harris). And even the supporting characters tangential to the team are interesting to watch; one standout is Hayden Panettiere, who’s hellaciously funny as the lame-duck coach’s tiny football expert of a daughter.
Like the actual 1947 World Series or the movie version of the 1971 Virginia state final game (in reality, the Titans handily won by a score of 27-0), this contest was a tight one. Both movies are high quality, very watchable entertainments that spin a fresh take on the old Underdog Triumphs formula. It was hard to pick a victor for this matchup, but pick we must, so in the end it’s Remember the Titans that gets the trophy.