Directed by John Badham
With the exception of the previous film, The Bad News Bears, the films thus far in this marathon have been very Major League centric, focusing on the top talent on the top league, whether the teams are fictional, or in Japan (I Will Buy You). The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings provides a refreshing reprieve from the same ol’ same ‘ol and treats viewers to the unique concept of “barnstorming” and the struggles faced by teams who did so, especially black players before integration in baseball. There will be another Negro League film later in this marathon (Soul of the Game), so it is great to see a film so concentrated on that struggle, unlike The Jackie Robinson Story, which focuses mostly on Jackie himself, and his journey.
For Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams), his performances are legendary, but his great talent is seen “wasted” against fellow blacks as opposed to being tested at the Major League level, where integration has yet occurred. Increasingly agitated at his treatment by the owners, Long sets out to build his own team which he plans on barnstorming across the Midwest to entertain locals while playing top local talent. He recruits Leon Carter (James Earl Jones), the league’s top power hitter, Charlie Snow (Richard Pryor), an eccentric player with hopes as passing as Cuban to break into the majors, and a slew of other talent ball players. But when the owners hear about the dissention, they intend to hamper the Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings to the point of shutting them down and forcing them back into their money machines.
The film opens with a great scene which sums up everything the movie is going to be about, and everything that made the Negro leagues special. One of the most standard hypothetical questions is always, where, or perhaps more appropriately when, would you go if you had a time machine? My answer has always been to go back and see the greats of the game play in person, and this has always included such legends as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck O’Neil. I would especially like to talk baseball with O’Neil, or rather listen to his stories. These men faced such discrimination and managed to play some of the best ball since the game was invented, only to be denied to right to showcase their talent at the “highest” level.
Bingo Long gets the spirit, so far as I can tell, of these player right. They take the game and their craft very seriously, yet remain cognizant of their role as entertainers, often using their humor to even calm a brewing racial firestorm. The team, and cast, maintain a careful balance between funny and serious, delivering a story aware of its characters place and struggle in society, as well as one which is entertaining and engaging, endearing the characters to the audience. Williams and Jones are particularly good, with Pryor’s role seeming quite background, and only existing for comedic relief.
The scenarios this team find themselves in are a strange mix of realistic and fantastically made up. The evil owners become somewhat cartoonish in their vocations, including a funeral home director. This makes the film feel too much like made for television movie than it deserves given the great potential of the story, and the firepower of the cast. However, in the end the entertainment value of this team and their antics is way too high to be stuck behind in television, offering a nice introduction into the role Negro League teams and players played in the baseball landscape prior to integration. It also gives a nice introduction into the long extinct practice of barnstorming.