Negro Leagues Hi-Jinks with The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

10/08/2010 12:51 PM |

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Roadshow: Traveling Entertainers, a 70s cinema showcase programmed by L Mag contributors Nicolas Rapold and Nick Pinkerton, kicks off Saturday night with a sports-movie double feature of John Badham’s The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, and North Dallas Forty (with the latter’s director Ted Kotcheff on hand).

Even for a baseball-averse childhood fatty and present East Coast intellectual pinko-type (such as, for example, the author) the bluster and charm of The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is irrepressible, and can possibly heal the pain of serially being chosen last during gym class.

A great deal of the affection the film earns derives from the fact that it’s one of those rare sports flicks that doesn’t pretend that good sportsmanship and talent govern the sport—money and race do. An apogeal Billy Dee Williams stars as Bingo Long, a Negro Leagues superstar who joins up with his W.E.B. Dubois-quoting rival (James Earl Jones) after being screwed over by his team’s owner. Their plan is simple but completely intolerable to the existing order: a player-owned team that equally divides profits from their games.

Shut out of the Negro Leagues by greedy owners and their switchblade-wielding goons, the All-Stars & Motor Kings barnstorm their way from Podunk to Bumfuck, Nowhere. (The crowd shots are pitch-perfect, possessing that understated, Grant Wood sarcasm that permeates the Midwest.) With qualified opposition hard to come by on this circuit, Bingo Long and company adopt a cakewalking, Harlem Globetrotter style, clowning around while beating the pants off their opponents.

While all this trash-talking and jiving is only mildly amusing, interspersed with only a few truly memorable zingers (“I always knew that boy’s Aryan proclivities would get his nuts in the cooker”), it establishes an atmosphere and rhythm as warm as the endless Indian summer the All-Stars play through. Their continuous repartee is like little verbal affirmations standing up against the unabashedly racist crowds they play for, and the alternately flush and insolvent conditions they exist under. They live day to day, not with a sense of bohemian romance but instead with the intense pride of knowing nobody owns them.

Part of Motown Production’s string of 70s gems (Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, Scott Joplin), Bingo Long speaks plainly, not unproblematically, but so effectively to the African-American experience. It is certainly not the last word on the subject——nothing should be considered as such——but for those previously unacquainted, it’s an enjoyable start.