John Serba is a film critic, unapologetic dad thrasher and writer of words. He's based in grand rapids, mi, but his mind occupies various pop cultural niches.

'Long Time Coming': A documentary on racism for yesterday, today and tomorrow

'Long Time Coming': A documentary on racism for yesterday, today and tomorrow

 
  A portrait of the Pensacola Jaycees, 1955. (Courtesy photo)

A portrait of the Pensacola Jaycees, 1955. (Courtesy photo)

Note: see “Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story” at ArtPrize On Screen, 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. Details are here.

In 1955, the Pensacola Jaycees Little League baseball team advanced deep into the playoffs without lifting a bat or throwing a ball. The Jaycees were black kids, and when white team after white team refused to play against them, they automatically forfeited. League rules were conceived to punish segregationists, who obstinately clung to their ignorance.

It took the ousting of a bigoted coach for the Orlando Kiwanis to agree to host the Jaycees. So the young African-American boys climbed into a bus and traveled 450 miles, stopping to relieve themselves in roadside fields, because the proper facilities were off limits to people of their skin color.

Does it matter how the game turned out? Not at all. That it finally happened after much hateful dithering by ideological numskulls who don’t even know why they’re prejudiced and can’t reasonably justify it even if they rubbed together their only two functional brain cells in an attempt to figure it out? Well, that’s more important. Two teams of 12- and 13-year-old boys played the all-American game of baseball, and probably barely had any fun, because they were bearing the weight of others, adults, idiots all.

The documentary film “Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story” does not take my angry, bewildered tone. It’s a warm and hopeful portrait of a reunion more than 60 years in the making, between some members of the Jaycees and the Kiwanis. It opens with a black man and a white man sitting across from each other in a restaurant booth, reminiscing about the game in which they played. It made headlines, and maybe a little bit of history.

  “Spider” LeRoy of the Pensacola Jaycees in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

“Spider” LeRoy of the Pensacola Jaycees in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Director Jon Strong avoids the temptation to overstate the importance of the game. It was regional, albeit in the Deep South. It drew maybe 1,000 people, a lot for a Little League game. On a national scale, It was small potatoes, although Strong brings in baseball luminaries such as Hank Aaron and Gary Sheffield to comment for the film. Strong asserts the game had significant impact on the men those boys became. In an intimate variation on the talking-head documentary format, he photographs these old men in tight close-up, forcing us to examine their faces intently, and notice the thoughtfulness in their eyes.

Strong’s intent is to uplift, and the film does that easily, with a sincere and genuine approach that cuts through the heavy-handed schmaltz of the musical score. But neither does he shy away from difficult social, political and philosophical questions. He’s not interested in just telling the story of the game, but contextualizing the tragedy of racism through the perspectives of the old men these ballplayers became, many of them wise, and some of them flawed, but all of them willing to think intently and compassionately about their perspectives.

The film can be fearless. Case in point: one of the Jaycees visits a Confederate monument towering over modern-day Pensacola, and shakes his head at the symbolism. One of the Kiwanis players describes the 1950s as “a calm and peaceful world,” but Strong follows up, forcing him to think beyond his own Caucasian nose. The film immediately cuts to the black men, who remember being “relegated to a certain side of town,” and facing curfews for “coloreds only.” Pensacola was one of the epicenters of mid-century racial divide, and Strong drops in brief snapshots of lynchings and Ku Klux Klan rallies with matter-of-fact horror.

So the movie posits the game as illustrative detail of the country’s deeply troubling racial strife. As any diligent documentary should be, “Long Time Coming” uses one event as a springboard for deeper, broader discussion. Strong drops in a montage compiling decades of conflict between the 1955 game and now, from Emmett Till to Charlottesville, and implicitly poses the question as to how we measure progress. He poses a solution that may be simple - face-to-face communication, empathy - but staggeringly complex to execute.

The film concludes with the reunion, a dozen or so men in their 70s laughing and hugging with open hearts. It’s earnest and optimistic, perhaps because it needs to be. They reminiscing is bittersweet - sometimes more bitter than sweet, no doubt. But in that moment, it seems clear that playing that game, awkward and tense as it was, made them better men.


‘Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story’

★★★

No MPAA rating

Director: Jon Strong

Run time: 87 minutes

 
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