[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Like most films with a baseball setting, The Bingo Long Traveling All-stars and Motor Kings is not essentially about baseball. Not that baseball is altogether a bad thing for a movie to be about (though in these days of the once-great sport’s waning popularity a real baseball movie might well die at the box office); it’s just that baseball is so damned useful to film makers as metaphor. One of the most exciting moments in Bingo Long occurs when Charlie Snow, a player on the barnstorming independent baseball team of the title, slips out of the game momentarily to relieve himself and suddenly finds a razor at his throat. The razor belongs to the hired goons of funeral director Sallison Potts, who is trying to intimidate Bingo Long and his team of unaffiliated black players into giving up their enterprise and returning to his Negro National League franchise. A closeup shows us the razor against Snow’s chest; a short cry escapes his mouth before it’s stifled by one of the goons. It’s too quiet just now: Snow’s screams would be heard. “Wait till Leon tags one,” says the second goon; “wait till the crowd roars.” At bat is slugger Leon Carter, whose big hit we have been waiting for and are now dreading. The pitcher winds up and delivers—and it’s a ball. And it’s a breathless moment in the theater. But it’s also essentially a denial of the excitement of baseball. Those who know baseball and consider it important don’t need a man’s life riding on the next pitch in order for it to be an exciting, tense experience.
Director John Badham evidently does, and feels we do, too. Nevertheless, within the limitations of a baseball ambience that is regrettably incidental rather than integral, Badham has wrought an interesting episodic film whose real concern is the black self-image two decades before the major civil rights decisions of the Fifties. The focus is intra- rather than interracial, with various approaches to blackness epitomized in a series of character-types: Sallison Potts is the black businessman, an imitation white man who exploits his fellow blacks for profit; Charlie Snow is the racial neurotic, trying to pass for anything but black; Leon Carter is the uncompromising black man, who reads DuBois, speaks of seizing the means of production, and keeps an eye out for exploitation from any direction; Bingo Long is the fulcrum who balances Carter with Snow, willing to compromise (he accepts the initially humiliating idea of dancing into town on the day of the game, quickly turning the strut into a sort of trademark for his team), ready to play his team against white teams in a time when other blacks fear to do so, equally ready to use nigger-charm to avoid tension and violence with the white teams, and capable of sacrificing anything to avoid falling into the capitalistic-exploitive frame of mind against which he has rebelled.
The consummate acting skill of most of the players invests these familiar types with something closer to life than is implicit in the thin dialogue; and so it has even more impact when we learn that the upshot of Bingo’s whole sortie into barnstorming as a means of black self-determination is to return his players to a now-dying Negro National League as the first player-owned professional baseball team. It’s something like Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues going “clear to East Jesus just to get a job uptown.” And rising underneath it all like the wave of the future is Esquire Joe, an amalgam of Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, the epitome of skill and personal pride without racial selfconsciousness, whose contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers at film’s end is both the triumph and the swansong of everything that Bingo and Leon have stood for. Badham brings all this off (and unexpectedly well), in spite of the weak script and the relegation of baseball to a background role, because he knows how to shoot his actors, how to catch and hold that much-needed facial expression which says more than a hundred lines of Barwood-Robbins dialogue can. He doesn’t do it consistently—and in Bingo Long he has quite a lot to work against—but that sense of putting the camera in just the right place sparks often enough in this film to make me think Badham will manage a very fine film someday: one filled with images like the potato-raking sequence in which Bingo and his teammates, fallen on hard times, face the slavery that is a part of their heritage; or the middle- and close-shot Fourth of July parade montage from which (my favorite moment in Bingo Long) Badham cuts rhythmically, grandly away to longshot—audacious, selfconscious, and so deliciously right—as the head majorette drops her baton.
THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS AND MOTOR KINGS
Direction: John Badham. Screenplay: Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, after the novel by William Brashier. Cinematography: Bill Butler. Production design: Lawrence G. Paull. Editing: David Rawlins. Music: William Goldstein. Production: Rob Cohen.
The players: Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor, Rico Dawson, Sam Brison, Jophery Brown, Dewayne Jessie, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Alvin Childress, Carl Gordon, Emmett Ashford.
© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow