I recently saw the films 42 and Spring Breakers back to back. 42 is the story of Jackie Robinson, the iconic baseball player who broke that sport’s color barrier in 1947. Spring Breakers is about four college women who go to spring break and become criminals. But the films have one thing in common: they are both about Jesus.
Specifically, 42 and Spring Breakers have the same plot: the protagonist is sent to hell and has to rely on faith in Jesus to survive the ordeal. The difference is that in one case God transforms evil into good, and in the other, God fails. In this there is a lesson in how our culture, particularly the popular culture and Hollywood, treats Christianity.
First, 42. This is a fine motion picture, directed by Brian Helgeland, about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who desegregated baseball when he signed Robinson in 1947. Rickey, played well by Harrison Ford, was a serious Christian, and he knew that Robinson, like Jesus, was going to endure abuse from mocking and violent crowds. More than once he compared Robinson to Jesus. “You have be to be like our savior,” he tells Robinson, played perfectly in the movie by Chadwick Boseman. “ You have to learn to turn the other cheek. I give the sermon, but you are the sermon.” Years before the civil rights movement, Robinson was practicing nonviolent resistance. Yet one of the great things about the film is that it does not conceal what a struggle this was for Robinson, a proud and bold man who never shied away from defending himself–even, as an early scene in 42 shows, against whites in the segregated postwar South.
Robinson was deeply religious and a family man, and 42 makes clear that it is these things that allowed him to endure the garbage he took. When I saw the scenes of Robinson praying, loving his gorgeous and strong wife Rachel, and promising his newborn son that he would never abandon him, I had the same thought I did years ago after seeing the film 300: this film will “surprise” Hollywood by performing well. It’s a conservative film, and it will do well. Early box office reports bear that out.
And then there is Spring Breakers. It involves another Dante, a college girl played by Selena Gomez. Her name is Faith and she’s an evangelical Christian. In early scenes she is seen at prayer meetings, where the pastor tells her that Jesus will shield her if she encounters evil. Faith gets involved with three bad girls, and they rob a local restaurant to pay for a trip to Florida during spring break. They party, apparently only own one item of clothing–bikinis, and get arrested. Then they get involved with a gang banger played by James Franco. Franco is basically playing the devil, and things turn out as you might expect–except for Faith, who avoids trouble by leaving early to go back to college.
You’re probably thinking that it’s absurd to compare 42 and Spring Breakers. But here’s the thing: Harmony Korine, the director of Spring Breakers, is talented. Cinephiles will want to arrest me, but I even saw flashes of the genius Terrence Malick in a few of the shots in Spring Breakers. But the problem with the film is the problem with so many modern movies: an inability to treat Christianity as something literate, challenging, and freeing. Or even to treat it as something other than a joke.
Comparing the treatment of Christianity in 42 and Spring Breakers indicates that Americans have become more secular not through any kind of Enlightenment, but through illiteracy and a loss of reason. Dodgers owner Branch Rickey and player Jackie Robinson are not only jocks, but literate men. Robinson went to college at UCLA, and Rickey can both quote the Bible and give the Greek meaning of words like Philadelphia. Theirs is a faith that is grounded in learning and reason; Rickey wants desegregation not only because it is right, but because it will make him money–and allow him to love baseball, which had become inherently unfair due to Jim Crow. In preventing Robinson from striking back at attackers, he reasons through how a different reaction will do greater good in the long term. He understands the Holy Spirit and how to affect the long arc of history. And the scenes of Robinson running the bases, some of the best I’ve seen in any baseball film, reveal his intelligence. He managed to steal a lot of bases not only through speed but by psychologically unravelling his opponents.
In Spring Breakers, the characters are so illiterate they repeat phrases over and over again like mantras–“It’s like a dream, it’s like a dream.” They have become like animals, only more nihilistic. Faith leaves Florida and the pilgrim who stands for us is suddenly gone, and the tension of how we react when confronted with evil evaporates. The film becomes banal, violent, and absurd. Whether Hollywood likes it or not, we are faced with moral battles in this world. As 42 shows, those battles, and God’s role in them (or even the role of an active conscience), makes for great drama. Without it, even looking at girls in bikinis gets old.