Jackie Robinson, the 'N-word' & '42'

Posted: April 19, 2013

LOS ANGELES - The surprise box-office success of the uplifting Jackie Robinson biographical film "42" suggests that audiences are ready for a PG-13-rated movie filled with coarse, racially charged language. It also raises questions about whether children should see it, and at what age.

In the picture, which grossed $27.5 million over the weekend, a variety of slurs are directed at the ballplayer, the first African-American major leaguer, who began playing in 1947. Most pointedly, he is called the N-word many times.

In one particularly graphic scene, Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, steps up to bat and is ridiculed mercilessly by Phillies manager Ben Chapman, played by Alan Tudyk. The relentless mockery is fueled by the repetition of the slur dozens of times. "That was the assault on [Robinson] and I thought we had to show it in a violent way," said the film's writer-director, Brian Helgeland. "Those words had to be violent. If we trivialized it, some people might say, 'Oh, he didn't have it so bad.' "

Tudyk knew what he was getting into from the moment he read the script, which he said "shocked" him. When the character actor, best known for his comic roles, began rehearsing his scenes opposite Boseman, his cheeks would flush and his eyes would water when he uttered the racial slurs.

In addition to the Chapman sequence, the racial slur is used 16 other times in the film, by the Los Angeles Times' count.

Alvin F. Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard who advocates for responsible media programming, says that by age 10 most American children have heard much of the name-calling that goes on between races. Parents can use the film as an opportunity for a broader discussion about all kinds of racism.

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