I was having trouble deciding on a movie to watch this week. So, of course, I turned to Google. And then I found a movie with this incredibly long title; a title long enough (and with a bizarre phrase like Motor Kings in it) to get me to click on it and find out more. And that’s when I discovered there was a baseball movie starring three terrific talents: Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is a fictional movie based on a fictional book that was, in turn, loosely based on the real Negro Leagues. Billy Dee Williams plays a showboating pitcher named Bingo Long, loosely based on Satchel Paige, and James Earl Jones plays a power-hitting catcher named Leon Carter, loosely based on Josh Gibson. The two men, fed up with the low pay and poor working conditions in the Negro Leagues (something I’ve never heard mentioned in reality, FWIW) decided to form a barnstorming club with some of the best players in Negro Leagues so that the players can earn more money since none of it would have to be given to a team owner.
If you want to watch this movie the first thing you need to know - and something I should have mentioned about Soul of the Game, last week - is that racial slurs are present in the film. Richard Pryor’s character attempts to impersonate a Cuban and a Native American at various points in the film in ways that might be considered offensive. Finally, one of the Negro League owners is an overweight woman who receives an alarming number of jokes, insults, and mean-spirited nicknames based on her weight. So if you’re going to watch it with your kids be sure to be prepared to offer context for those moments.
Interestingly enough, despite never seeming to take anything seriously, this movie actually deals with a lot of elements of racism. It’s just that it’s approach is less about the obvious, blatant acts we’re used to and more about the insidious kind that so is so often excused or goes ignored. While Soul of the Game provides a scene in the middle where a white woman casually uses a racial slur while preventing a black woman from using the restroom, institutional racism underlies almost everything that happens in Bingo Long without ever resulting in an overtly racist act. Every time a white person is onscreen you can almost feel their complete lack of regard for our black heroes. Never is it more prevalent than when Charlie Snow gets cut up by the mobsters hired by one of the Negro League team owners to try and force the players to all return to their previous contracts.
The white nurse working at the hospital that patches him up takes all the money the team has and complains that they don’t understand the true value of the care that has been given to him. When they attempt to sneak out of the hotel because the hospital has taken all their money, the white owner threatens them with a shotgun, uses racial slurs to describe them, and then, with the help of the local sheriff, takes one of their cars to auction off for payment. When they attempt to find work to buy back the car they find themselves picking potatoes to earn five dollars but when they go to claim their pay at the end of the day they’re given a fraction of what they were promised. Still, they hope to buy back the car with their funds but the bidding is started much higher than it should have been and they’re immediately priced out.
Now, several of those moments I just described are played as if they’re at least a little funny. And you can argue that none of that was based in racism - none of the protagonists even claim they are being discriminated against. But the only way to make that argument make sense is if you pin it all on capitalism instead. And, well, Leon Carter makes it pretty clear that he, at least, views those two things as two sides of the same coin. He compares playing for a team owner to slavery on more than one occasion. He inspires the whole player-owned-team scheme that drives the film by quoting the posthumous autobiography of noted black socialist W. E. B. Du Bois, “Therefore, for working people to be free, they must seize control of the means of production.” Both Long and Carter decide that they’d rather retire and work as potato farmers than slave away under the capitalist regime that the Negro Leagues represent to them after having experienced the freedom of their All-Stars. And, at the end of the film, Leon speaks prophetically about the end of the Negro Leagues with the white leagues now signing young, black baseball players such as Esquire Joe (who, in this film, represents some combination of Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson.) He knows that capitalism and race issues will drive the potential audience for the Negro Leagues to watch those games instead - which is ultimately what happened in real life.
This is all fairly subtle as far as movie messages go, of course. The words “racism” and “socialism” are never uttered. Bingo and Leon don’t start the All-Stars because of a desire to make any kind of political or socioeconomic stand but rather just out of a desire to make more money. The film also offers up lots and lots of barnstorming shenanigans to entertain and distract you while these arguments play out subtly underneath. I even suppose it’s possible the people involved in making the movie had no idea that the message conveyed by the film would be so strongly anti-racism and pro-socialism but I don’t think a competent creative team would quote a prominent black socialist so many times without knowing what they were doing.
That being said, the biggest selling point of this film is, as usual, the charisma of the lead actors. There’s a running bit throughout the film where Pryor’s Charlie Snow tries to teach the mute and brain-damaged Rainbow how to be a statistician but can’t, himself, figure out how to calculate a batting average. It’s ridiculous, but Pryor’s delivery makes it delightful. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones also deliver fun, enthusiastic performances that almost force you to enjoy yourself. It is impossible to be unhappy when either of those actors smile. The movie also has a lot of physical comedy and is really quite funny despite its messaging. And, ultimately, the good guys win out. Bingo’s All-Stars play against a squad of All-Stars who remained in the Negro Leagues on a wager against one of the team owners. When Bingo’s team wins they’re admitted into the league so they don’t have to barnstorm anymore. The villain of the movie - the team owner who is directly behind every bad thing that happens to Bingo and the others throughout the film - is forced out of the league to make way for them and everyone is better off than when they started.
The movie isn’t without its flaws. Even in the HD version I rented from Amazon, the sound mix was abysmal with dialog often being drowned out or not matching up with the visuals. Despite lots of well-done, physical hijinks as the team barnstorms around the country a choice was made to film very close in or far away from throwing pitchers and swinging batters to disguise what I can only assume were some pretty nasty deficiencies in their technique. There’s also a scene late in the film with some unintentional humor when the two leads fight on the side of the road. It was very reminiscent of a baseball brawl in that very few punches were thrown but there was a lot of holding each other tightly and shuffling back and forth while yelling insults.
However, this film holds up pretty well. I can’t condone the racist depictions in the movie but it’s charming, funny, and surprisingly intelligent. All in all, it was a pretty fun baseball flick that just wants you to also have fun. And if you think seizing the means of production is fun, well, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings certainly won’t complain.
I just wish I had ever figured out what the “& Motor Kings” part means.