The war at home circa 1939 unfolds on the baseball circuit, "Jim Crowism on the diamond" serves the double-edged showbiz metaphor. (A Motown production helmed by a British novice is the reflexive venture.) Tired of being exploited by avaricious Negro League suits, Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) of the Ebony Aces and sluggin’ Leon (James Earl Jones) of the Elite Giants choose revolution ("a very democratic idea") and take their own lineup on the road. Barnstorming independents still have segregated stopovers to face, bleacherfuls of racists lie ahead in every town yet shrewd Uncle Tomfoolery defuses friction. It’s all fun and slapdash montages until the owners decide to "seize the means of production" back, razor and revolver and all. "The slave done run off, all right." Games as spectacle, spectacle as performance, performance as the basis for black self-image in the middle of athletic apartheid. The intransigent pride of the hitter who knows his DuBois is contrasted with the neurotic effacement of the player (Richard Pryor) who first dons Cuban pomade and Spanish dictionary and then fringed buckskin and afro-mohawks; midway between the two is the suavity of the team leader, whose smile must disarm the audience while sidestepping minstrelsy degradation. The anger of Aldrich’s sports allegories (The Longest Yard, All the Marbles) would have fit the story; heading in the opposite direction, the joshing antics and barrelhouse tempo of John Badham’s direction enforce crowd-pleasing coziness, complete with an elegiac closing after the auspicious rookie (Stan Shaw) is snatched by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sundry flavorsome details (the satirical apparatus of gorilla suit and oversized mitt, the capitalists’ conference in a funeral home’s cramped parlor, Pryor’s sidelong glance at the tawny Fourth of July baton-twirler) hint at the stinging struggle, though the stadium here remains mainly an arena for safe box-office amusements. With Ted Ross, Otis Day, Jophery C. Brown, Tony Burton, and Mabel King.
--- Fernando F. Croce