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April 15 2013

Alan Tudyk plays dark role in Jackie Robinson movie. Our favorite space pilot plays a very different role in the new movie 42, about baseball great Jackie Robinson. Tudyk plays Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who is seen yelling racist comments at Jackie when he is at bat.

The movie, which was number one at the box office last weekend, is directed by Robert Helgeland, who Tudyk worked with in the movie A Knight's Tale

There was an interview somewhere with Alan Tudyk, linked to on Whedonesque a month or two ago, where he talks about apologizing to the extras in the stadium before the scene was filmed. In the scene, his character says the N word more times in five minutes than I believe is heard in the entirety of "Django Unchained." It's a great performance, and I liked the movie overall, but I wonder why the MPAA will give an R to a movie that uses the F word more than once and give a PG-13 to unlimited use of a word that to many is much worse.
My husband saw this movie over the weekend and commented that it was a chance to see just what a really, really, really great actor Tudyk is.
The movie was great and Alan Tudyk was fantastic (and horrible), but I couldn't breathe the entire time he was on screen. I mean, I knew what the movie was about, clearly, but I was not prepared for that level of intensity from Alan.
Shapenew, I imagine that the MPAA's decision might have something to do with context and historical accuracy. The movie wasn't just casually tossing the n-word around for no reason - they were trying to depict with some level of historical accuracy the sort of ugly racist hatred that Jackie Robinson had to face and overcome, which is kind of the entire point of the movie. With other ugly subject matter, you can sometimes find a creative way to depict something that isn't so obvious. But when you need to show how a man manages to do his job, and do it well, while the opposing teams manager is just yelling "N*****, N*****, N*****, N*****, N*****, N*****, N*****, N*****, N*****!!!!!!" at you, what can a director do? Having Tudyk yell "N-WORD, N-WORD, N-WORD, N-WORD, N-WORD, N-WORD, N-WORD, N-WORD, N-WORD, N-WORD!!!!!" or "AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AFRICAN-AMERICAN!!!!" just doesn't really do the trick.

My husband saw it with our 11 year-old son, and frankly I'm glad that our child saw that scene. It gives him a chance to see exactly how ugly that part of the USA's history is so that he can see why it's so important to keep pushing back against the sort of racism and segregation that continues to exist, such as the case of the high schooler students in Georgia who still are fighting right now to have their high school prom integrated.
Good for Mr. Tudyk and his agent for getting him a role that isn't comedic.

In any historical movie, choices have to be made about how realistically to depict people's language and behavior. Differences from contemporary standards may be heightened or minimized or used for comic effect, depending on the artistic aims of the film.

The central point of this movie is to show Jackie Robinson as heroic. To do that requires depicting in detail what the culture was like and the kinds of abuse he faced. I would imagine that a further point is to show how American culture has changed since 1947, which could not be accomplished if 1947 is tidied up to look like an era in which a person of mixed race can be nominated, elected and re-elected President.

The term "n-word" is only about ten years old. In 1947, that word was certainly a racist insult but it was not a taboo word except in polite company (the phrase "polite company" probably has no meaning for people under the age of thirty) and among liberals. In some white subcultures, the word was so usual that people didn't even think of it as an insult.

When whites were being deliberately insulting, they also came up with a variety of other terms of abuse such as jungle bunny and jigaboo. To omit or tone down the racist language that was commonplace in 1940s America would gut the point of the picture. There are millions of people alive who remember those times.

This is (according to a review I read) an educational and uplifting movie that young people will benefit from watching. Given that the so-called n-word is liberally used in hip hop and rap music popular among the young, I don't see what good would be accomplished by giving the movie a more restrictive rating or using the word less in it.

Whether those were the reasons for the MPAA rating, I have no idea.

[ edited by janef on 2013-04-15 19:19 ]

[ edited by janef on 2013-04-15 19:20 ]
In the context of this movie, I think the multiple utterances are important. You can be offended by, but then sort of dismiss one use of the word. But, by repeating it over and over, you get into squirmworthy territory. If you feel uncomfortable, well, that's kind of the point, I'd say.
I am in no way suggesting "42" should have toned down what Jackie Robinson was up against, nor am I suggesting that kids shouldn't see it. And of course I know that codifying the word is a relatively recent development - I'm using the abbreviation here because, except in a historical depiction (like "42"), I can't think of a reason to put it forth. I'm just saying, even if it were historically correct that Ben Chapman had repeatedly called Jackie Robinson a "M*****f*****g N*****, if *that* had been in the dialogue, the movie would have gotten an R rating. I just think it's interesting what's considered (at least by the MPAA) too obscene for minors to hear without parental supervision and what is not.
Well, the n-word can be spoken on the broadcast networks and they will not be fined. They may be chastised by the public, but not fined by the FCC. And it was spoken on national TV just a few decades ago. The word is taboo, but n-word itself does not warrant an R-rating.
My cynical answer is it's because n***** is about race, while f*** is about sex, and clearly sex is something our children should never be exposed to.

I'm not a huge fan of the MPAA.
There is that line, "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." I expect "42" to be a demonstration of that principle. I expect Alan to be, as always, first-rate in his characterization. I expect to see it, and to feel the stirring of deep, old memories of that other place.
The fact that Alan is playing a real person probably makes the stakes even higher in terms of the disturbing real-life offensiveness. Alan playing a pedophile on CSI Vegas was also disturbing but as someone already said, that's the point. The verisimilitude.

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