Soul of the Game (1996)

Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan
Written by David Himmelstein

The Negro Leagues always seems to be somewhat forgotten by mainstream history. When people speak of the greatest players to ever play the game, the conversation often revolves around the greatest in the Major Leagues: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, etc. But when it comes to that era, it is always nice to see the Negro League stars such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, etc. get some publicity. With Bingo Long, earlier in this marathon, we got a look into the Negro League scene of entertainment, showboating, and great play, but while that film was a fictionalization of the Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson story, this HBO movie, Soul of the Game, is a more literal interpretation of one of more important moments in American history, as Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, a feat which was much more impactful than simply on the field of play.

The film picks up right about where you might expect, as Jackie Robinson (Blair Underwood) is joining the Kansas City Monarchs, who have long been ruled by their king, Satchel Paige (Delroy Lindo), the dazzling and seemingly timeless pitcher whose greatness would have certainly placed him among the best in baseball had it not been for the color line. Paige and his longtime friend and slugging catcher Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson) have dominated the Negro Leagues for years. With Branch Rickey (Edward Herrmann), the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, announcing he would be scouting the Negro Leagues for a new team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, Paige and company begin to catch on to Rickey’s true motivations, to break the color line in MLB. Soon they are all chasing the honor of being the first black player in the Major Leagues.

The tone of the film seems to mirror the style of play of these great ballplayers. In this sense, the film somewhat moseys along at a rather relaxed pace, with no urgency to get us to important high watermarks in any of the three main characters history. That is not to say it doesn’t present us with the drama and important moments in the story, or that the Negro League game did not take itself seriously in trying to win or play at an extremely high level, quite the opposite. What Paige, Gibson and Robinson teach us is that the game is meant to be fun, and it’s meant to entertain the crowd who gathers to watch. With this particular story, it becomes more than that, as it reflects a societal change and important moment in US history, but Soul of the Game also allows the viewer to soak in the more entertaining moments of the game by meandering around every now and then.

Ultimately all three players were deserving talents to break the color line, and the tragedy of the story is that integration came at a time that was too late for Paige’s prime, even though he eventually did have success in the Major’s, his best years were lost to the Negro Leagues. And it came in too unstable social conditions for the mentally disabled Gibson to be able to handle the scorn and pressure that would have been placed on him. But by the grace of Robinson and Rickey, Jackie paved the way for countless others who were equally deserving of a shot at the dream. Soul of the Game, therefore, tells a very important story of baseball history, and does so in a very entertaining and competent way, giving thanks to these men and faithfully portraying their legend and stories.

The cast is superb throughout, led by the always capable Delroy Lindo as Paige. Lindo I have always felt was underrated as an actor. But Edward Herrmann, Blair Underwood and Mykelti Williamson all carry their weight here as well, making for a very capable ensemble. I cannot claim to really have any gripes about the film, but if I could say one thing it would be that I would love to explore the stories of the Negro Leagues a little deeper than the conventional Jackie Robinson story we typically get when delving into that world. There were so many legends of the game among the ranks of the Negro Leagues that is seems criminal to focus only on these three when talking about the Leagues history. I understand and appreciate their importance, but if I were to make the next Negro League movie, I would settle into the league more fully, and spend time with Oscar Charleston, Pop Lloyd, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Roy Campanella and many others.

*** – Very Good

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