THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS, a summery slice of Afro-Americana from the centennial year of 1976, tags several bases, putting another overlooked piece into the ever-evolving national puzzle via the sports subgenre “Baseball, as it Was”.
“It so fast it burn the atoms off the leather and attain the speed of light! It tend to disappear when approaching the plate!”
1939, thereabouts. Like most things in America at the time, sports were segregated. Though the color ban was unwritten, it was a solid, uncrossed White line. Among the Negro league teams trying to get ahead of the curve is the polyglot club put together by brash pitcher ‘Bingo Long’ (Billy Dee Williams). Long’s drive, and their style, talent and antics win over crowds on the circuit in the Midwest. Facing discrimination from whites is expected, but Bingo and buddies are also plagued by brutal tactics from a cartel of black team owners.
Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins (their collaborations include The Sugarland Express and Dragonslayer) wrote the script off a novel by William Brashler. John Badham made his feature debut as director, shooting mostly on rural locations in Georgia. The team was based on the Indianapolis Clowns, with Bingo partially riffed off Satchel Paige.
Though on the predicable come-from-behind side familiar from most sport sagas, the cast makes this a winning bet, aided by the neat job recreating period flavor. When somebody you’re rooting for grand-slams one out of the park, the kid in all of us is hard pressed not to smile. Bingo is essayed with spirit, flair and charm by Williams, with key backing from James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor. Pryor gets in some funny licks (he was batting homers that year in hits Car Wash and Silver Streak as well as six comedy albums), and even some drama when his character suffers a startling assault. Jones, playing it broad, is a bit too much like his breakout performance in The Great White Hope: he’s bested by Williams, who’s at the top of his game. Nice secondary roles go to Tony Burton, Stan Shaw and DeWayne Jessie (aka Otis Day).
Made for $9,000,000, it slid in at #41 for ’76, earning $16,200,000. With Jophery Brown, Leon Wagner, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Ken Foree, Joel Fluellen and Jester Hairston. 110 minutes.