THE UNDERRATTED-THE SPORTS EDITION: THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS
I am going to hazard a guess here and say that outside of maybe ContinentalOps, who by my calculations has seen nearly every movie ever made, nobody else has seen this vastly underrated gem from 1976, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. Not only is the movie an underrated sports movie but it is also an underrated movie period and it probably has one of the best titles in the history of film.
Here are the basics of the story: It is 1939 and all-star Negro League pitcher Bingo Long is fed up with being, as he says, “a slave to colored club owners who should know better” and forms his own barnstorming ball club made up of fellow all-stars poached from teams around the Negro Leagues. The Traveling All-Stars become wildly successful with their Harlem Globetrotter-like antics during games and by great ball playing as they travel around the mid-west playing local teams. Of course this new business model does not sit well with the owners of Negro League teams especially Sallison Potter, owner of the team Bingo pitched for and who hounds the All-Stars until they agree to the Big Game. This big game is a one shot deal that pits the Bingo Long All-Stars against the remaining Negro League All-Stars, winner take all. If the Negro League team wins, Bingo quietly folds his tent and all his players return to their original teams. If the Bingo Long All-Stars win, they become newest team in the Negro League.
There you go, that’s the flavor of the movie and during the course of this review I’m going to talk about the plot more in depth but I figured I needed to tell y’all a bit of the story since, like I said, I bet most of you have not seen the movie or even heard of it. If I didn’t provide some info, this review would be more confusing and disjointed than usual.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings was directed by John Badham and he did a great job at the helm. Badham recreated the late 30’s perfectly and took a group of excellent actors and got them to elevate their work to a higher level. It helped that Badham was working from a tight script written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins and adapted from the novel of the same name by William Brashler. The writers did an excellent job of translating the book to the screen and should be commended for not losing much of the book’s nuances and yes, I have read the book.
This movie has a large ensemble cast so I am just going to stick to the top billed members of the cast but before I do, I would like to say that the entire cast does great work. They seemed to really take to portraying Negro league players and everyone treated their characters with the respect they deserved.
There is a point I would like to make before I go on. This movie is a very, very thinly veiled tale of real people and events although it occurs about 8 years before the real events happened. Bingo Long is the story of the Negro Leagues at their height and Jackie Robinson who was the first black player to make it into the all white world of professional baseball in 1947. For the most part they used the real story of Negro League players and just changed the real player’s names in the movie. Also, the Traveling All-Stars are based on a real barnstorming team from the 30’s, the Indianapolis Clowns. Let’s take a quick look at the main characters and the actors that portrayed them and the real people they are based on.
Bingo Long is played by the suavest, most coolest cat in movies, the King of Malt liquor himself, Billy Dee Williams and man did he sink his teeth into the role of Bingo Long, who is really famous Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige. Seriously, they used real life incidents of Paige’s life when his team was up 1-0 in the ninth ending and Paige pulled his outfielders from the game, pitched out of a jam and won. Williams was downright magnetic in this movie.
James Earl Jones played catcher and power hitter Leon Carter who is based on catcher and power hitter Josh Gibson, a legendary hitter of the Negro League. His story might be one of the saddest of the movie. Because of his skin color and fear of his talent, Carter (and Gibson in real life) was denied the opportunity to compete at what was considered the highest levels of professional baseball.
Jones took what could have been a slightly one dimensional character and infused him with nobility, pathos and humor that was downright breathtaking to watch. Jones was every bit as compelling as Billy Dee Williams.
Richard Pryor, who was excellent as right fielder Charlie Snow, a.k.a. Carlos Nevada a.k.a. Chief Takahoma. All the a.k.a.’s are because Charlie Snow spent the entire decade of the 1930’s trying to break into Major League Baseball by pretending to be Hispanic or Native American or any ethnicity that’s not Negro and thus acceptable to MLB. Many Black ballplayers tried that gambit during the segregated days of MLB and as far as I know only one guy was successful. That guy, who’s name I can’t remember, managed to pass himself off as a Cuban and made it all the way to triple-A ball before he was found out. Snow is based on the real life ballplayer named Charlie Grant.
I always seem to forget that Richard Pryor had legitimate acting talent beyond just being funny and in this movie he put it all out there for the world to see. Sure he was funny as hell as Charlie Snow in a bitter, world beaten way but he was able to show the dehumanizing and soul crushing cost that segregation demanded from humans under its sway.With a person that had lesser talent then Pryor I don’t think they would have been able to bring the depth to the character that Richard Pryor did.
Lastly there is “Esquire” Joe Callaway, played by Stan Shaw, whose character represents Jackie Robinson or as he is called, “The Chosen One”, at the end of the movie. Shaw played Callaway as a semi-naive wide eyed kid that while unsophisticated compared to the other all-stars, is not stupid. He knew he was faster, stronger, had a better arm and could hit better than Leon Carter but he also knew that going to the majors would doom the future of the Negro Leagues.
Observations like that last bit, which are laced throughout the movie in a subtle weave, are why I recommended watching The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. Bingo Long could have stuck to the easy road of banging on segregation and it does but it also goes deeper and looks at why men compete and strive to be the best in the face of an evil system like segregation. The movie has the balls to tackle black racism and classicism (if that’s a word). It’s a multi-level view of complex social issues but it is also able to maintain a lighthearted and joyful tone and never preaches. It also helps that the baseball scenes are well filmed and the big game has a lot of tension to it. If you get a chance check out The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. You might just have a good time.