Movie Review: "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings"
by Matt Sandler
There has been renewed talk lately of the Negro Leagues, with much outrage that renowned baseball ambassador Buck O'Neil failed to be elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee. One of the best and most good-hearted baseball movies is about the Negro Leagues, the comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976).
The movie takes place in 1939, and the pre-war period is cleverly established with a fake newsreel that opens the film. We see real events from that year (Hitler invading Czechoslovakia), which segues into fake B&W footage of Negro Leaguers playing in Yankee Stadium. It is a short scene, but quickly establishes the jazz-infused and high-energy times in which the rest of the action takes place.
The next scene shows an exhibition confrontation between ace pitcher Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) of the Elite Aces and slugger Leon Carter (James Earl Jones) of the Elite Grays. Carter gets the best of Long, and later provides the impetus for the rest of the film. In a post-game conversation, he mentions the works of civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois, about the needs of the workers to “seize the means of production” from the owners. This inspires Bingo to create the group of the title, throw off the shackles of the (black) Negro Leagues owners, and go barnstorming across the country. Many of the best and most independent-minded players are recruited from across black baseball, including Charlie Snow (Richard Pryor), who optimistically believes he will one day play in the white major leagues.
The action of the traveling troupe is inter-cut with the team owners (one of their teams is called the Atlanta Black Crackers), who debate how to deal with the renegades. One owner suggests playing the All-Stars with the best of the remaining players, but another argues that if the All-Stars win, every player will want to join the “revolution.”
We get to know a lot of the routines of the All-Stars. One of the running jokes is Snow trying and failing to explain how to calculate batting average to the mute batboy, Rainbow (DeWayne Jessie). The team literally dances its way into each of the cities in which they play. They recognize that they are not just athletes, but have some of the same instinct for showmanship as the Harlem Globetrotters. The toughest game for the All-Stars is against a team of white players, where the All-Stars face a steady stream of abuse, including the dreaded “n” word. Bingo wins over the fans with a gag played on Carter; all the players demonstrate unfailing good humor and composure under sometimes trying circumstances. We also recognize that similar to major leaguers, they have no shortage of women from which to choose, including one of the team owners. We hear a lot of talk of having a woman in every city, and we remember that before the talk of “brotherhood” and “revolution” that these are men first.
Pryor gives an interesting performance in the film. We are used to some of his manic performances in his movies with Gene Wilder, but here he gives a funny but often subtle take on his character. He thinks he’s a ladies’ man as he uses the Cuban alibi of Carlos Nevada to try to convince white women that he is Hispanic rather than black. (Later, his “Aryan proclivities,” as Carter refers to Snow’s preferences, will cause major trouble for him.) It is not one of Pryor’s most well known roles (as it is only a supporting turn), but it is some of his best work in movies.
There are some very funny moments in the movie, including the sight of an Orthodox Jewish team (the House of David) playing the All-Stars; they vend bagels in the crowd. The All-Stars also are low on money, and are reduced to working in an Amish potato field to make some cash. But the best thing about the movie is the tone that is maintained throughout. These players certainly have an unfair lot in life. Besides the general racism they face in society, they are unable to maximize their incomes in the whites-only major leagues. Furthermore, they are oppressed by their owners of the same race, and face many hardships along the way. But perhaps because they realize how lucky they are to be making a living (for the most part) at a boys’ game, they generally keep a positive outlook.
Despite the occasional promotion at a major league game involving throwback Negro League uniforms, this part of baseball history remains largely unknown to all but the most die-hard fans. Certainly Bingo Long would not hold up as an historical artifact, but it is a warm and comedic look at this period in history, and a reminder that something called “barnstorming” was once a major aspect of baseball.
Matt Sandler's column "The Critical Fan" appears alternate Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org