Monday, February 13, 2017
Reeling Backward: "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" (1976)
"The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" is a notable watershed film, and not just for having one of the longest titles anyone has ever seen.
This 1976 drama/comedy highlighted largely forgotten portions of the history of cinema, baseball and the city of Indianapolis. For starters, it's one of the few modern mainstream movies you can point to in which every single major character is black. A few white people appear, but they're tiny supporting parts or backgrounders (often stepping forward to spew a racial epithet and then leave).
Even the villainous roles are filled by black actors, from the odious power-hungry team owner to the grim-faced goons he employs to keep the uppity players in line.
Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor provide the star power, with the likes of Stan Shaw and Mabel King rounding out a strong supporting cast.
A lot of people know about Negro League baseball, but not how it ended. With the integration of the sport accelerating rapidly, the league largely ended as a competitive endeavor by the mid-1950s. Many operations continued as barnstorming entertainment spectacles, however, often featuring ex-Negro League stars like Satchel Paige.
Writer William Brashler based his novel on one such outfit, the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns were the last surviving team of the Negro Leagues, and continued performing exhibition games until the mid-1980s. A young Hank Aaron played on the team before being called up to the big leagues. The Clowns operated as sort of a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters, doing tricks and jokes in between the baseball, fully living up to their name.
(If you're offended at the team moniker, remember that a lot of Negro League teams had overtly racial names: the Birmingham Black Barons, Atlanta Black Crackers, Winfield Devils, etc.)
Writing partners Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins were brought in to turn the book into a script. They had just gotten their big break with "The Sugarland Express" for Steven Spielberg; other notable credits include "MacArthur" and the immortal "Dragonslayer."
Director John Badham started out in television, and this film marked his feature film directorial debut. The following year he made "Saturday Night Fever," and would go on to a busy career in the 1980s and '90s, including "Short Circuit," "WarGames," "Stakeout" and "Blue Thunder." Closing in on age 80, he's still busy in TV today, including directing a number of episodes of the series "Supernatural."
It should be noted the entire creative team was white guys, though Berry Gordy served as producer for the film, which was a joint production of his Motown Productions and Universal Pictures.
Set in 1939, the story is about a pair of Negro League stars who chafe at the onerous treatment of their team owners and resolve to start their own exhibition team, with all proceeds split equally amongst the members. Williams plays Bingo Long, a veteran star pitcher loosely based on Satchel Paige. He's in his prime but feels the pull of the years, and jumps at the chance to have something of their own.
The impetus is the latest assault by St. Louis Ebony Aces owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross), a mortuary man who gives his players only slightly better treatment than the stiffs who come in his door. Rainbow (DeWayne Jessie), a young hitter, is knocked out cold by a beanball pitch and rendered unable to play or even speak. Potter collects $5 each from the pay of each player to buy the bus ticket home for Rainbow, without even so much as a thank-you or may-I.
Bingo's best friend is Leon Carter (Jones), a catcher and power hitter inspired by Josh Gibson. He's a bit older and a bit wiser, and first plants the seeds of this diamond field rebellion by quoting from W. E. B. Du Bois about controlling the means of production.
Before you know it, they're all piled into Bingo's fancified jalopy, with rainbow-colored uniforms and a two-stepping march worked up for the ride into each new town to draw a crowd and parade them to the baseball field. Walter Murchman (John McCurry) is also invited along even though all the other players hate him, because he has the second car they'll need to get around.
Other All-Stars include "Fat" Sam Popper (Leon Wagner), who's barely even pudgy by today's standards; Champ Chambers (Jophery C. Brown); Tony Burton as Isaac, a bald-headed player whose duties on his previous team included catering to the very personal demands of the female team owner; and "Esquire Joe" Calloway (Stan Shaw), a 19-year-old wunderkind they pick up along the road, who ends up being called up to a white farm team in the end.
Pryor has a supporting role as Charlie Snow, who straightens his hair and tries to pass himself off as a Cuban named Carlos Nevada, figuring he'll have a better shot at breaking into the white leagues that way. He serves mostly as comedic relief, including a bit where he attempts to lay a white prostitute and gets chased around the hotel Keystone Cops-style.
But Charlie/Carlos is laid low about halfway through when Potter's mercenaries corner him under the grandstand. The film is an interesting mix of laugh-a-thon hi jinks and more sobering sequences like this, where Carlos is mutilated with razor blades and the team has to sink all their funds into the doctor's bill to help him.
Probably the low/high point of the film's "message" portion is when the team seems to be falling apart, and Bingo has to put Rainbow on a bus home himself -- even temporarily adopting the harsh language and demeanor of their old slave master Potter.
Mabel King plays Bertha Dewitt, the aforementioned female owner and sexual powerhouse. She's an interesting character -- a mountain of a woman who's just as greedy and conniving as her fellows, but at least has sense enough to suggest enlisting Bingo Long's All-Stars to play their own teams, filling the stands rather than trying to destroy them. She acts as Potter's main adversary, continually trading insults about how fat and unattractive the other one is.
The actors employ a great deal of authentic vernacular in the movie, and I wonder how much of it is in the book/script and how much the cast themselves contributed. Even Leon, who's clearly presented as the cagiest and most learned of the All-Stars, says things like "I loves you and I's proud o' you." Jones and the other actors never try to play down to their characters, simply reflecting how black people spoke in the 1930s.
Even if, like me, you're not a baseball fan, there's a whole lot of the flavor of the game to be savored in "Bingo Long." Though the actors don't necessarily pass themselves off as accomplished pitchers or hitters, they're convincing enough for the close-ups. I love the scenes of the stands filled with black folks, stamping their feet, chattering and laying bets on each at-bat.
Bingo has a tradition before each home game of throwing to the first hitter without his team taking the field -- daring them to put wood to ball with no one there to field it. He makes a real show of it, doing a call-and-answer with the crowd: "Who... gonna hit... my... invite pitch?!?"
I'm truly glad I got to see "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings." It may not be the best film ever made, but it's one of those movies that enlightens while it entertains. Go catch it yourself.