Written by William Brashler, Hal Barwood, and Matthew Robbins
Directed by John Badham
There are baseball movies everyone has heard of, and then there are the sleepers. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is definitely in the sleeper category.
It’s 1939 and World War II is looming on the horizon. The Negro Leagues are featured on a newsreel, extolling the virtues of such players as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. What the newsreel didn’t say was that the Negro League faced the same problems intrinsic in the Major Leagues that precipitated the Black Sox scandal of 1919: greedy owners in it for the almighty dollar at the expense of the players.
To counter this, one of the more charismatic players, Bingo Long (portrayed by Billy Dee Williams) forms his own traveling team of Negro League All-Stars and hits the road. They embark on a barnstorming tour through the mostly white towns of the mid-west in the late 1930s. Their antics during this time break through some racial barriers as they take on the small-town teams of white players and even manage to frolic with a white prostitute.
The characters were patterned after the real stars of the Negro League. Bingo represented Satchel Paige and aging star Leon Carter (portrayed by James Earl Jones) was Josh Gibson. Richard Pryor is also here as Charlie Snow a.k.a. Carlos Nevada, a half-Hispanic, half-Negro who is invited along because he has the nicest car of all of them.
The result is something that is mostly comedy, with some drama surrounding the racial undertones. It’s definitely reminiscent of the style of the 1970s and has more in common with movies such as Car Wash and television shows such as Sanford and Son than baseball movies and television shows featuring an African-American cast that would come after this time. This might be due to the fact that in the ensuing years more barriers would be broken down, whereas in the 1970’s interracial couples still turned heads on the street and could expect to be ostracized by both communities. There was one expectation for what a comedic film directed at African-Americans would be like and another for a film directed at white America.
The humor in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is great, but it really takes away from some of the drama of what was going on at the time. The players are shown making the most of their skills and enjoying their status. Although the racism does exist, it’s really a backdrop to the fun they are having. I thought Soul of the Game did a much better job capturing the essence of this era.
That’s not to say The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings isn’t fun. People who have only seen a few clips of Richard Pryor will get a good taste here of why he was so highly regarded as both a comedian and an actor. James Earl Jones is in this at a time before he became renowned as the voice of Darth Vader. The fact that he appeared in Field of Dreams as someone who was a huge fan of baseball really ties in nicely with his performance here. Billy Dee Williams was considered a top-notch actor at the time and was the definition of suave and sophisticated.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is a good baseball film with some great performances. It might not be the best baseball film ever made, but it doesn’t try to be. It also serves to show just how much the players in the Negro Leagues had in common with their counterparts in the Major Leagues in fighting the owners tooth and nail for every dime they earned.