This week I watched a movie I’m guessing not a lot of you have heard of. I certainly hadn’t heard of it until I decided to go digging around for movies about the Negro Leagues for this week’s edition of Does it hold up. And that’s because this was a made-for-cable movie almost 20 years before Netflix would make such a thing seem worth watching.
Before we get too deep into the movie I did want to mention that much of the content of the film has had its authenticity hotly disputed. Almost nothing that happens in it may be accurate to reality. But then, that’s a little like the Negro Leagues itself. Nowhere is that more evident than the movie’s claim, just before rolling credits, that Josh Gibson hit 972 home runs in the Negro Leagues. Other sources - including Barry Bonds when addressing the press following the game where he broke Hank Aaron’s all-time MLB record for home runs - have suggested that the number is closer to 800. And the reality is we will almost certainly never know for sure.
In a lot of ways, Soul of the Game reminds me of several others we’ve already watched. The most obvious comparison is 42 because both films tell at least part of the Jackie Robinson story, albeit from different angles and with vastly different levels of authenticity. It reminds me of A League of Their Own because it has the same awkward framing device with scenes set in the future of the main story to start and close the film. If anything, Soul of the Game does it worse because it’s entirely unclear why a reporter would just happen to relive the whole tale with Willie Mays right before a ball game. Finally, it also reminds me of Bull Durham because it’s not driven by character growth but is instead really just a glimpse into a moment in time. Albeit they use real names instead of imaginary ones, this time. I also found these characters far more likable than the ones in that movie.
Speaking of the characters, the acting in this movie is absolutely phenomenal. Though the scenes of baseball being played still leave something to be desired, this seems easily the best-acted film I’ve yet reviewed in this space. Delroy Lindo, as underrated an actor as I can think of, is tremendous as Satchel Paige. When he’s on the field he’s all bravado and shenanigans, just as I’ve always heard the legend described, and when he’s off-the-field we see him run the entire gamut of emotions. Mykelti Williamson gives a heartbreaking performance as Josh Gibson; capturing for us a joy in the game and an inability to fight off the illness that would end his life before he ever achieved his dream of playing in the major leagues. Blair Underwood also delivers a very solid Jackie Robinson; he’s not quite as good as Chadwick Boseman, but he’s more than enough for this part. Speaking of comparing roles, Edward Herrman’s performance as Branch Rickey struck me as not nearly as good as Harrison Ford’s. I tried to imagine how I’d have felt about it if I hadn’t seen 42 and I think it’s an adequate performance, but it lacks the heart and depth with which Ford imbued the character.
The point of this movie, then, similar to A League of Their Own, wasn’t to convey the real history of the Negro Leagues but more to convey a sense of what it might have been like to be there and to make you root for them even though you know going in that it can’t last. And it succeeds in that. One historian - and writer of biographies of both Gibson and Paige - contends that the two were absolutely not drinking buddies and that Robinson didn’t even like the Negro Leagues. But even if none of that could ever have happened I still feel closer to all of them than I did before. And that’s the kind of emotional tie that can get you to speak up in support of people.
The movie doesn’t shy away from reminding us how awful racism can be, either. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where Satchel Paige is driving his wife and Jackie Robinson to New York for a baseball game and they stop at a fruit stand. Paige’s wife, Lahoma, bonds with the young woman running the stand over hairstyles but when she asks to go inside to use the restroom the immediate reply is, “Oh no, My dad doesn’t let n***** in the house.” After Lahoma’s expression goes from friendly to shocked an appalled the girl seems to feel a bit awkward or apologetic, but she makes no effort to actually apologize, much less do anything to help the woman with a full bladder in front of her. The movie’s focus is on how Satchel takes it in stride and Robinson’s thoughts about that but it also serves as a powerful reminder that just because we might not have made the rules doesn’t mean that we aren’t causing harm by allowing them to continue.
Considering this movie is nearly 25 years old and at a time when “Made for TV” was a pejorative term, this movie holds up surprisingly well. As long as you understand that nothing in it may remotely reflect reality it’s a particularly enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes with a few stars from the history of baseball. And, perhaps best of all, you can take my recommendation without spending a dime. The movie is currently available in its entirety for free on YouTube.