The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is an enjoyable romp about the good/bad old days of the Negro League, a consortium of baseball franchises that thrived in the 1930s, until the big leagues broke the color line by hiring black players for previously all-white teams. Billy Dee Williams, at the apex of his laid-back suaveness, stars as Bingo Long, star pitcher for the Ebony Aces, an NL team owned by heartless mortician “Sallie” Potter (Ted Ross). Fed up with Potter’s abusive polices (fining players for insubordination, kicking injured players to the curb), Bingo forms his own team for a barnstorming tour of the Midwest.
To realize his dream, he recruits influential catcher Leon Carter (James Earl Jones), wild-man right fielder Charlie Snow (Richard Pryor), and other NL luminaries. Dressing in brightly colored costumes with slouchy satin hats, the newly formed All-Stars swagger from one small town to the next, grabbing pickup games with local teams and building a solid bankroll even as they wrestle with racism and unsavory promoters. Meanwhile, Potter and the other NL owners recognize the All-Stars as a threat to their livelihood, so Poter sends goons out to harass and rob the All-Stars.
As directed by popcorn-movie specialist John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), Bingo Long is brisk and eventful, with a vibrant mix of comedy, drama, social commentary, and sports action. The story moves along at a good clip, even if the characters are drawn a bit broadly, and there’s an offbeat mix of performance styles. Pryor is more like a guest star than a costar, dropping in and out of the movie periodically, but he’s got a funny running gag about trying to calculate batting averages, and he livens up the picture whenever he’s onscreen. Jones, showing the chops for light comedy that are easy to forget given his impressive résumé as a dramatic actor, is funny and tough, the voice of reason balancing Bingo’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming.
Williams is hamstrung slightly because writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins let their protagonist get eclipsed by supporting characters; Bingo gets the story going and returns to the fore at the end, but his inner life is never sufficiently developed to make him the start-to-finish focus. Given this shortcoming, Williams does just fine, channeling the charisma that helps Bingo talk friends into joining his crusade.
The movie is a touch long at 110 minutes, especially considering its thin approach to characterization, but it presents such unusual subject matter, in such an entertaining way, that it’s a solid double even though it’s not a home run.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings: GROOVY