Accidental Racists, Deliberate Heroes

Why '42' succeeds where Brad Paisley and LL Cool J failed

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How do artists talk about race in 2013?

Brad Paisley and LL Cool J tried with the release of "Accidental Racist," and failed miserably, if critical reaction is to be of any judge. In the song, Paisley defends embracing symbols of so-called "Southern pride" – Confederate flags and the like – that others might perceive as racist. "We're still pickin' up the pieces, walkin' on eggshells, fightin' over yesterday/And caught between southern pride and southern blame," he sings. LL Cool J then points out his own clothing choices and the racial tensions they may cause: "If you don't judge my do-rag/I won't judge your red flag/If you don't judge my gold chains/I'll forget the iron chains," he raps.

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Critics had plenty to complain about, and Paisley and LL Cool J have since sat on many a couch to defend the song. But even if the two had good intentions, "Accidental Racist" achieved the opposite of what they were trying to accomplish.

Within days of the song's release comes a movie that looks at America's racial legacy and one of its most thrilling triumphs over it. If "Accidental Racist" is the most offensive piece of art about racism to come out this week, then "42" is certainly the least. The film will ruffle few feathers, and to be fair, the story of the first black major league baseball player is a hard one to botch.

Everything you expect is in there, and little, if anything will surprise. And while its accomplishments in moving the race debate forward are generic at best, the delicacy with which it treats the issue is admirable and something artists like Paisley and LL Cool J should note.

One criticism of "Accidental Racist" was Brad Paisley's very definition of southern heritage excludes African-American participation within it. Two films in this year's Oscar race also took on America's racist past and in comparing the two, the question of African-Americans' participation in their own emancipation struts to the forefront. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" drew criticism for its predominantly white cast—African-Americans played only minor roles in moving the narrative forward. In "Django Unchained," black characters play central rolesone the hero on a quest for revenge, another the villain, committing crimes against his own race. Any drama depicting a victory over prejudice will have to decide who has the freedom, ability and agency within their situation.

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"42" treads lightly around who to credit for integrating baseball and why. Harrison Ford plays the familiar angel-in-curmudgeon's clothing as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who decides to bring the first black major league ball player onto his team. From the beginning, Rickey insists his motives are financial: "Dollars aren't black and white. They're green." But once he and Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) enter the tempest he has created, Rickey often employs biblical allusions to either guide or guilt all parties involved into accepting Robinson and integration. Sure enough, by film's end, Robinson has extracted the personal back story behind Rickey's commitment to desegregating baseball.

So where does that leave Robinson's role in this achievement? Rickey says he is looking for "A good man, and great baseball player" to enact his plan. Time and time again, Robinson holds up his end of the latter part of the deal, smashing baseballs out of the park, stealing bases and making impossible catches. The outs are few and far between, almost to a fault. And the former condition? "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" Robinson asks, when Rickey warns him of the trials he will face. "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back."

Here in lies the film's crucial suspense, not whether Robinson will hit a ball or steal a base (though those make for fine moments of popcorn drama), but whether he can keep his cool in the face of dauntingly hateful circumstances. The most compelling moment in "42" comes when Robinson's is closest to losing his temper. Robinson was handpicked and thrusted into a situation he never intended to create, in some ways making him an "accidental" hero, to borrow Brad Paisley's favorite adjective. Yet every decision and reaction from that moment forward must be completely (and at times, unfairly) deliberate, as to not rattle the wasps' nest Rickey has placed him in.