The Jackie Robinson biopic "42," which opened in theaters nationwide Friday, presents an opportune moment for adults to have meaningful conversations with their kids about the history of racism in the United States.
But with that opportunity comes an array of challenges, especially for younger audiences keen on seeing a story of an iconic sports hero.
It really comes down to language. Given a PG-13 rating for "thematic elements including language" from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the film doesn't shy away from depicting the racial slurs hurled at Robinson, who was the first African American player in Major League Baseball, starting in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
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One scene in particular stands out for its repeated use of the N-word, a phrase some children have yet to be exposed to, while others, especially those who listen to hip-hop, have likely heard.
Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, steps up to bat, only to be ridiculed mercilessly by the opposing team's manager, Philidelphia Phillies' Ben Chapman, played by Alan Tudyk. His relentless mockery is fueled by the repetition of the epithet.
Critics have taken note of the scene, with the L.A. Times' Kenneth Turan writing that the sequence is "especially effective." He continues, "For present-day viewers, especially children, who may not have heard this kind of language in real life, prejudice as naked as this is tough to experience, even on a movie screen."
This is the pivotal issue for parents of younger children interested in seeing the film. What's age-appropriate, and how much can they handle?
Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard who advocates for responsible media programming but hasn't yet seen "42," says that by age 10, most American children have heard much of the name-calling that goes on between races.
Yet he advises moms and dads to get a second opinion from other parents who have seen the film before taking the kids, even those who are 13. For those parents who are interested in bringing their children to the film, he suggests broadening the discussion beyond black and white to other ethnicities and races.
"Generally by age 10, they understand all that. I think they begin to understand where it fits and they see kids calling each other all kind of names," he said. "And that’s the context that parents should put it in. It’s not just blacks that get called racial slurs, it's Latinos, it's Jews, it's Italians, it’s everybody. And you don’t do that to people."
Poussaint said he is troubled by how the N-word has been used in rap and hip-hop music, its frequent invocation perhaps leaving the impression that it is no longer offensive or hurtful. Children who listen to such music, he said, may benefit from seeing a movie such as "42," which shows the power of the word and the pain and damage it can inflict.
"The reality of what that word means and how it’s been used to repress and belittle, humiliate and demean black people is important for them to understand," said Poussaint, who is black and specializes in parenting issues related to African American children.
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"I would bet there are more black parents who know that their kids use that word who might want to, as an antidote, have them see what a vicious word it is," he said, "and how it was used against someone who could have been their grandfather."
To be sure, much has changed in the more than 65 years since Robinson joined the league; many of today's junior high students may not remember a president before Barack Obama.
Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, said part of her motivation in allowing the makers of "42" to tell her husband's story was so today's children could revisit history and recognize the progress that's been made — while acknowledging the challenges that remain.
"I wanted to make this movie so children would feel inspired by Jack," she said in an interview with the L.A. Times. "We've made some remarkable progress and I'm very pleased with what's been done, but racism still exists, and in terms of having equal opportunities, we're not there yet."
Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.
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