Hey, remember that time Darth Vader and Lando Calrissian teamed up to play baseball and fight segregation?
Years before they crossed paths in Cloud City, Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones faced off on the baseball diamond.
The pair star in The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), a fun and frothy sports flick that applies a light touch to an incredibly heavy topic.
Directed by John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) and set in 1939, the film takes place during baseball’s segregated era, with Williams and Jones starring as fictional Negro league ballplayers.
Williams is charismatic pitcher Bingo Long (although I suppose the ‘charismatic’ part is a given when we’re talking about Billy Dee Williams), and Jones is fiery slugger Leon Carter.
Opening with a news reel to set the scene, we're then introduced to Bingo and Leon as they square off with each other, which should pique the interest of any Star Wars fan straight away.
When Bingo calls out the sleazy owner of his team for his unjust treatment of an injured player, he’s fined for trying to “forment rebellion”. Realising that this deal is getting worse all the time, he teams with the similarly disenfranchised Leon to tear away and form their own barnstorming team of rebel players.
Bingo is a lovable schemer and entrepreneur (and a snappy dresser), much like our favourite Cloud City administrator, and his gaudy promotional antics essentially turn his team into the baseball equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Bingo’s all-stars don’t just play, they put on a show – especialy when they’re performing for white backwoods crowds who expect them to “shine”. It’s entertaining, on one level, to see them batting backwards and throwing firecrackers instead of baseballs, and for the most part, the film doesn’t really ask you to look any deeper than that.
Of course, it’s also incredibly sad that these gifted athletes should be forced to resort to these cheap tricks to make a living, but that sadness, that injustice, tends to live on the fringes of the film, because it’s so doggedly determined to give the audience a good time. It’s a ‘crossover’ movie in the truest sense, which – given the subject matter – seems somehow appropriate.
Williams and Jones actually have great chemistry together, and Richard Pryor is also a lot of fun in a supporting role as Charlie Snow, a member of Bingo’s team who resorts to pretending to be Cuban in a bid to cross over to the major leagues.
In its nostalgic, rose-coloured-glasses approach to a bygone era that is, in reality, best left behind, it’s almost the black American Graffiti (although it didn’t come anywhere close to the cultural impact of that film).
Behind the scenes, Bingo Long’s Lucasfilm ties run deep – it’s not officially affiliated with George Lucas in any way, but screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins went to the University of Southern California’s film school with Lucas, forming part of the notorious ‘Dirty Dozen’ that also included legendary editor Walter Murch, Conan the Barbarian director John Milius, Grease director Randal Kleiser and American Graffiti screenwriter Willard Huyck.
Both Barwood and Robbins worked on Lucas’ debut feature film, THX 1138, as well as Steven Spielberg’s first feature, The Sugarland Express; after Bingo Long, they would both do uncredited work on Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They re-teamed for the Mark Hamill vehicle, Corvette Summer, and the fantasy epic Dragonslayer, which made heavy use of Industrial Light and Magic’s go motion techniques.
Barwood would spend most of the ‘90s working on scripts for Lucasarts games, including Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, while Robbins struck out on his own as a writer and director.
Considering the timing of Bingo Long’s production, and Barwood and Robbins’ connections to Lucas, it seems likely that this film was instrumental in convincing Lucas to cast Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones in their iconic Star Wars roles, although Lucas doesn't appear to have confirmed that anywhere.
A mostly forgotten movie with deep roots in the Film School Generation, The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings is well worth revisiting – it’s not flawless, by any means, but it’s eminently watchable; boasts strong performances from Williams, Jones and Pryor; and captures the barnstorming spirit of the real-life rebels that inspired these larger-than-life characters.
If you like it, follow it up with 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic that tells the real-life story of how baseball's colour barrier was broken, and features an underrated performance from Harrison Ford in a supporting role.
The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings is available for purchase on iTunes and YouTube.
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