Weekend Film Recommendation: The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings

As baseball playoff season is almost upon us, it’s a good time to recommended a movie set inside the diamond. Hollywood has made many beloved films about baseball from Field of Dreams to The Pride of the Yankees. This week’s recommendation is a lively, enjoyable movie about America’s pastime that like the era it portrays is often forgotten today: 1976’s The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings.

The plot: In the waning days of the Negro League, a free-spirited Satchel Paige-esque pitcher named Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams, at the peak of his considerable charisma) chafes under the exploitative tactics of his team’s owner. He persuades a fearsome slugger (the ever-impressive James Earl Jones) and a number of other Black players to form their own barnstorming baseball team. Bingo’s motley group includes a slow-witted outfielder (A quite funny Richard Pryor) who thinks he can play in the Major Leagues if he can just persuade white people that he is Cuban or Native American. After the Negro League owners close off the Traveling All Stars & Motor King’s access to other black teams, they begin to play white teams instead. The teammates thus must confront the question that every Black entertainer of the era faced: Is it morally acceptable to clown around in front of white audiences in order to appease the bigots and thereby stay employed?

This is mainly a bright comedy that delivers a few big laughs and many smaller smiles. There are dramatic themes as well. For a Hollywood film, there is more Marxism than one would expect. The white baseball teams of this era were owned by wealthy white people who generally treated their players like serfs. The black teams in this film are owned by wealthy black people who generally treat their players like…serfs. As Jones’ character tells Bingo Long, their team’s struggle for economic independent is not so much about race as it is about how the “workers can seize the means of production”. The story also includes some intriguing (if underdeveloped) observations on race, most particularly in a subplot involving a Jackie Robinson-like member of Bingo’s team (earnestly portrayed by Stan Shaw) who attracts the interest of a white team. Bingo wants the best for him, but also knows that the breaking of Major League baseball’s color line will destroy the all-Black baseball world which he loves.

The only significant weakness of the movie is its uneven tone. First-time director John Badham didn’t quite decide whether he was fundamentally making a comedy or a drama, and he shifts gears back and forth pretty roughly at times. For example, the owners of the black teams are buffoonish villains at one moment, but then order that someone be slashed with a razor the next. As a result, if you look over the careers of the three leads, you will note some more consistently funny comedies and some more consistently weighty dramas than this film.

That said, the entertainment value of this movie is very high end-to-end, and the art direction and set design bring its historical period alive. There are films that are very hard to like, and films that are very hard to dislike. Thanks to its irresistible leads and the window it opens into an aspect of baseball history that Hollywood usually ignores, this film falls decisively into the latter camp.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Chiefs

The 1983 TV mini-series “Chiefs” holds up very well 30 years on.

dlctwqqaqqocbigA few weeks back, I recommended a sterling British television mini-series (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). This week, I call your attention to a solid US example of the same format: Chiefs. It was broadcast on CBS 30 years ago and like millions of other Americans I was glued to the set each night as its sprawling, multi-generational tale of law enforcement, small town life, racism and the hunt for a clever serial killer unfolded.

The film centers on three police chiefs in the town of Delano, Georgia and a fourth man who is denied the chance to be the chief and is forever embittered. The story is narrated by the town’s leading citizen: Banker, investor and politician Hugh Holmes (Charlton Heston). In 1924, Holmes persuades the town council that Delano has grown big enough to have a police station. They hire gentle farmer Will Henry Lee (Wayne Rogers) as their first chief, enraging a WWI veteran who wanted the job (Keith Carradine). The choice of Lee is also disdained by good ol’ boy county sheriff Skeeter Willis (Paul Sorvino), who sees the responsibility of police mainly as keeping poor people and Blacks in line. Meanwhile, runaway boys begin disappearing around Delano, and Chief Lee comes to suspect that he is dealing with a sexually motivated serial killer. But events intrude before Lee can apprehend the murderer.

The story then moves forward to the end of WWII, when a thuggish war veteran named Sonny Butts becomes Chief (Brad Davis). He uses the power of his office to terrorize Blacks, women and anyone else he can get his hands on, to the point that Holmes is able to begin making moves to have him fired. Butts concludes that if he can solve the decades-long murder spree, which is still underway, he can save his job. He comes close but also fails, leaving the mystery to be attacked again by a different chief in 1962, Tyler Watts (Billy Dee Williams). But Watts has more than murder to contend with: He is under great scrutiny and indeed threat as the town’s first Black chief, and he also must be careful not to endanger the political career of William Henry Lee’s son (Stephan Collins), who is running for governor as a racial moderate. There are many other clever ties between the stories of the three episodes, but revealing them would be a crime of its own.

twckwcutaagbbigThe narrative structure of Chiefs, based on Stuart Woods’ novel, is inspired. With each generation we get to see the changes in Delano and in the South more generally, particularly with regards to race. Yet there is also continuity in the horrible murderer and the indirect partnership of three different men who do not know each other yet collaborate across the years to track down the killer.

The series features no bad performances and many strong ones, including by Heston who is agreeably restrained here. Paul Sorvino is also tremendous as Skeeter. Some actors think the way to play a racist realistically is to stamp around yelling epithets and dripping hatred. But Sorvino has it right: Most racists don’t repeatedly proclaim their racism any more than air breathers make repeated attestations to their love of oxygen. For Sorvino’s Skeeter, racism is just who he is and how life as he sees it is, and that makes him much scarier than the usual ranting bigot stereotype. Brad Davis, as the second chief, also tears up the screen. The actor had a brutal, short life but maybe that’s what gave him the remarkable ability he shows here to channel darkness. His Chief Sonny Butts is the pluperfect lustful, hateful bully. Keith Carradine is also creepily effective as Foxy Funderburk, the man who was denied the job of Chief and has been nursing a grudge ever since.

Chiefs does suffer a bit from scattered flaws. At least one scene in each episode rings false, and some other dramatic moments that are ultimately effective nonetheless have contrived set-ups. Ageing a cast almost 40 years when of course not every actor is the correct chronological age when you start is a formidable challenge, and at times the makeup technicians don’t quite meet it. None of these peccadilloes are fatal to enjoyment, but collectively they keep Chiefs in the realm of excellent TV mini-series rather than letting it soar to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy-level heights.

I am blessed because my family videotaped Chiefs end-to-end when it was first aired. If you want to enjoy this high-quality production beware the many chopped up versions that are floating around (e.g., the 200 minute VHS release). The full-length version of course requires a bigger investment of time, but the compensation is handsome indeed.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.