Baseball — Black by Popular Demand

Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and we celebrate it by continually producing movies that highlight its mythic status. From Pride of the Yankees (1942) to Field of Dreams (1989) baseball movies prove that there is indeed an intimate history between the sport and this country and a certain legendary-ness to a group of guys hitting balls with bats and racing around a huge diamond.

Sadly, baseball, like most other activities at some point in United States history, was also a segregated spectacle. So what is the best way (cinematically) to deal with this divided time in sports history? Why, with comedy, of course!

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What do you get when you put Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor on a baseball team in 1930s America? The answer: Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). I haven’t seen a title like that since Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965).

Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, The Empire Strikes Back) stars as Bingo Long, an enterprising, good-hearted ball player stuck in the segregated Negro Leagues under the oppressive thumb of greedy team owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross). Sick of himself and the team being underpaid and treated poorly, Bingo starts to hatch a plan to start his own barnstorming independent team of all-star African American players. James Earl Jones (Coming to America, The Hunt for Red October) is the power hitting Leon Carter, Bingo’s stoic ally and partner when they hit the road. They assemble a team of great athletes who are sick of their crappy team owners. One of the players they manage to pick up is Charlie Snow aka “Carlos Nevada” aka “Chief Takahoma”, played by comedian Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Superman III). Other players can outrun speeding baseballs and hit home-run after home-run. The film also makes several allusions to athletes like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and others with its fictional lineup.

This being the first directorial outing by John Badham (Short Circuit, Stakeout), the film needed a strong cast. And the cast is great. Williams is as charismatic and sharp as ever, Jones delivers a strong performance (as if he could deliver anything but), and Pryor is funny as the guy trying to get into the white leagues by passing himself off as Cuban (a hilarious insight and statement in itself). The ensemble baseball team of entrepreneurs is very talented and fun to watch. Stan Shaw and Tony Burton and all the rest are well cast. Ted Ross is also fine as the mean, cigar-chomping, hearse-driving Sallison Potter and Mabel King is great as team owner “big” Bertha Dewitt.

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Once the All-Stars successfully cut themselves off from their former owners they drive from town to town dancing down main street to advertise their arrival in the hopes of playing the local teams and getting paid. This goes well and everyone on the field and in the stands is having a great time, but then Sallison Potter hears of their success and will not have it. Potter starts paying people off so no one in the Negro Leagues will play them. He also has his thugs rob and terrorize Bingo’s team members. Running out of options, and low on dough, Bingo and Leon decide the only thing left to do is to play the white baseball teams.

The problem is that the good, white, Southern folk who fill the stands on hot summer days in the 1930s are not too thrilled to see black athletes screw around on the field. At first the All-Stars find themselves getting ugly stares and even boos when they make a good play. Then Bingo realizes what the white games are missing: some informality. In the Negro Leagues they would laugh and joke and have fun with the opposing team. The small-time white baseball players are too stiff and uncomfortable with their opponents so Bingo starts to lighten everybody up by adding a healthy dose of clowning to the white diamonds. It is not enough to be as good or even better than the white teams, the All-Stars have to make a show of it. One does not simply catch a fly ball. One piggybacks up on a taller player to catch it or slides between someone’s legs to catch it. They prove their athletic prowess as well as good spirits and sense of humor and soon the conservative folks up in the stands are having as much fun as the All-Stars.

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After several games, Potter’s tampering goes too far. They lose all their money, lose one of their cars (full of equipment), lose several team members, and have to pick potatoes to earn cash. Bingo tries to keep everyone together, but perhaps his ideals are just too big and unrealistic for anyone else to see. With nothing left to lose, Bingo challenges Potter to a game: his team vs. Potter’s. If the All-Stars win they retain their independence, but if Potter wins everyone goes back to their own teams. With everything riding on this one big game and Leon Carter nowhere to be found the stakes are high…but if you’re a regular filmgoer than you already know that somehow things will work out for the best.

I like the old cars and charismatic performances. I like how it interacts with history and how they recreate the look and feel of the old south. I like the energy and humor and fun it looks like everyone is having. Add all this to the fact that the story is pretty good and that makes for a pretty entertaining and lovable movie that unfortunately seems to get overlooked these days. If you like sports movies and think you’ve seen them all then check this one out.

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Top 10 Reasons to See Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

1. Just look at that title. Marvelous. Ooh! And an ampersand too!

2. See a young, svelte, bat-swinging James Earl Jones—pre-Vader voice.

3. Oh, so you like period baseball flicks like A League of Their Own and The Natural too? Watch this one.

4. It’s a refreshingly unpretentious outing to the ballpark. I love Field of Dreams, but movies like Bingo Long and the original Bad News Bears aren’t nearly as full of themselves.

5. Car chases, shootouts, sucker punches, dwarfs, amputees, classic cars, and great baseball plays. (Sorry, I guess the dwarfs and amputees thing is just the Jodorowsky fan in me talking).

6. Mabel King keeps her large ridiculous hats on even in a sauna.

7. Richard Pryor pretending to be Cuban…and Navajo. 3

8. Although it’s a bit screwball, it is still grounded in its historical setting and has a genuine affection for the game.

9. It’s such an American movie! Baseball, overcoming the odds, AND entrepreneurship?!

10. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones talking to each other. Seriously. Two of the best and most recognizable voices in conversation? Hurry, the credits are coming. Give them something else to read!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 21, 2011

Brace Yourself. It’s “Song of the South”

This ain't exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

This ain’t exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

One of the most inflammatory movie titles one can utter is Song of the South (1946). Am I racist for liking this movie? Some people might think so. I concede that Song of the South is not Roots (1977) nor is it Amistad (1997), but it’s sensibilities are far less prejudiced than say Birth of a Nation (1915). It’s probably more artistically comparable to Birth of a Nation in that it was a surprising technical achievement, but I submit that Song of the South is not quite as racially insensitive as is commonly perceived (or at least, it doesn’t mean to be), rather it is merely uninformed and maybe not that bad of a movie.

Don't do the review, man. It's not worth it.

Don’t do the review, man. It’s not worth it.

It’s been banned in its entirety for years and Disney still hasn’t released it. Frederick Douglass would undoubtedly be appalled by Disney’s apparent lack of understanding of the plight of the American slave showcased in this film. In fact, it is in this department that the film gets the most flak, and perhaps deservedly so.

It depicts the jolly slave affably singing and toiling in the fields for his masseh. No one is discontent with the fact that they are living in human bondage. Naturally, the slave owners themselves are kind-hearted and good people too. Kindly old Uncle Remus is only too happy to oblige his masseh in any task and there are really no consequences for disobedience. I concede all of these things, but I honestly was not expecting a serious look into the harsh realities of this dark hour in American history. I watched it for the cartoons. This is a family Disney film from the 1940’s. Maybe they were ignorant and oblivious to what actually went on, but even had they known and still chosen to water it down it would still be the Disney way. In a children’s fantasy film from the Walt Disney studios you don’t show the bloody stripes on the backs of your jovial protagonists. You have to wait until the 80’s for that.

Shh...be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits.

Shh…be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits.

Song of the South is not attempting to be Johnny Tremain (1957) or Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), which may take some liberties but are still trying to represent an historical time. Song of the South was an attempt to bottle some of the magic of Uncle Remus’s tales of Br’er Rabbit and I’d say they succeeded in doing that much. In fact the only real reason to watch Song of the South is for the animated segments and for James Baskett’s charismatic performance as Uncle Remus.

Well, this is a fin how do you do.

Well, this is a fine how do you do.

Some might say that Baskett was playing a stereotype just like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939), but they still both crafted lovable, endearing characters that outshone the rest of the respective films they were in. Maybe they didn’t get the complex juicy roles because the prejudices of the times would not give them much more, but they did what they could with the material given to them. It’s a damn shame McDaniel really only ever got to play slaves or maids, but don’t sell her talent short. I think she deserved that Oscar. Baskett also did receive an honorary Academy Award for his performance in Song of the South and Walt Disney himself fought very hard to get him nominated. Ironically (and sadly), Baskett was unable to attend the premiere of his film in Atlanta because of the segregation laws at the time. Let’s not forget how hard it was for ethnic actors back then.

The film itself is your typical uber-saccharine tale of a young boy who learns life lessons. The child performances are nothing to write home about and much of the live-action stuff gets boring whenever Uncle Remus isn’t around, but be patient.

Tell us the story of Django again!

Tell us the story of Django again!

Poor little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is hoodwinked into thinking his little trip to his grandmother’s plantation is a delightful vacation…until he learns that his parents are separating (still not too sure why, but I suppose that’s not important).  This actually might have fed the controversy too. If a kid’s movie is edgy enough to attack the stigma of parental separation on children, might it at least have the guts to depict racism and slavery with a little more accuracy? Instead there is no racism, only bullies, and slavery is just a footnote because the story happens to take place in Georgia in the 19th century. Ah, well.

Back to Johnny. Fortunately for Johnny he makes friends with wise, old Uncle Remus who “edutains” with stories of Br’er Rabbit and how he outsmarts Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Johnny’s mother disapproves of the stories because she feels it has a negative impact on her son and she forbids Uncle Remus from telling him any more. Throughout the movie Johnny finds a puppy, makes friends with a girl, deals with bullies, wrestles with anxiety over his parents, almost gets killed by a bull, and always tries to sneak back to his friend Uncle Remus to hear more. The story is sweet and innocent enough and if it didn’t feature slaves as content watered-down Stepin Fetchits it would probably be another much celebrated film in the Disney canon. Alas, it suffers from controversy…which I think actually makes it much more interesting and more important.

What now?

What now?

The scenes that combine live-action with animation are wonderful. Uncle Remus sings as he strolls down a dirt road and all of the adorable anthropomorphic animals sing along. It has been parodied much, but these sequences are really well done and they were huge technological breakthroughs at the time and although Song of the South might not be Mary Poppins (1964), I’d say it’s a far more stimulating accomplishment than Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). The three main animated segments featuring Br’er Rabbit are magical and as finely drawn as anything the Disney studios ever produced. They brim with peril, humor, and wisdom and each tale delivers another important lesson for Johnny (and us all), but they are told with such playfulness and gusto that they are a delight to hear again and again. Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Rabbit are charming characters and the film develops them quite well. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you are probably already familiar with them from the Splash Mountain log-floom ride at Disney theme parks. And almost everyone has heard the songs “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “How Do You Do?”

So what exactly do we have here? A great technological accomplishment, a fine story, some very enjoyable performances, great iconic songs, and splendid animation thrust amidst some blindly optimistic time capsule with extreme naiveté regarding race relations and overwrought with classic Disney sentimentality. All in all, I’d say it’s nothing most people wouldn’t be able to handle with some maturity. Song of the South is guilty of depicting the happy black man who is perfectly content with his subservient status beneath whitey’s thumb. It does show a clean and delusionally optimistic version of life on the southern plantations. It is a product of its times. It was also a huge passion project for Mr. Disney. And you know what? I liked the movie. I found myself being captivated by Uncle Remus’s enchanting yarns and the beautiful animation. I also loved Dumbo (1941) too. People always told me as a kid that the crows were racist. They may portray stereotypical black speech and characteristics, but they’re really the only decent folk in the movie apart from Dumbo’s mom and Timothy Mouse.

Over there! Justin Bieber is doing something!

Over there! Something controversial!

I remember reading the stories of Br’er Rabbit and his adventures when I was a little kid. I enjoyed the stories then and I enjoyed them being retold in the movie. He was way more interesting than Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to me. He was smart and savvy, and although his wise-alec attitude got him into trouble, he always could think up a way out. The film stays true to the original characters and its not nearly as racist as the thousand other racially insensitive cartoons and movies from that era and earlier (and I’d still advocate their preservation too). So will watching Song of the South today promote racism? I’d say no. If anything it can give us an insightful glimpse into American history. Not the sad history of American slavery in the 1800’s, but the unfortunate history of 1940’s Hollywood. It’s a pretty good film on its own, but I’d say the controversy and historical context actually enhances it and provides more to discuss. Check it out if you can find it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 15, 2011.