Mythology and hyperbole about life inside baseball's Negro leagues are given a rest in HBO's vidpic. Concerned more with personality and character than legend as three of the game's greatest players -- Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson -- stand at the threshold of major league integration.
Mythology and hyperbole about life inside baseball’s Negro leagues are given a rest in HBO’s “Soul of the Game.” The vidpic is concerned more with personality and character than legend as three of the game’s greatest players — Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson — stand at the threshold of major league integration. The riveting depth of the telefilm’s p.o.v. is embellished by the stellar acting, which dissipates any concern for the blurring of fact and fiction.Scripter David Himmelstein has created a tableau for Paige (Delroy Lindo) and Gibson (Mykelti Williamson) and the women in their lives — Lahoma Paige (Salli Richardson) and Grace (Gina Ravera) — to explore relationships between athletes , the sexes and races. In an outstanding performance, Lindo plays Paige as a barnstorming sage with considerable busi- ness savvy whose witticisms were a deflection of potential character-searching by the media. The down-home country boy image portrayed by the press during his playing days (1930-65) appears to be as calculated by Paige as were his trademark windmill windups. “Soul of the Game” starts in Santo Domingo as pitcher Paige and his all-stars , including catcher Gibson, are heading back to the States for the 1944 season. Commissioner Keenesaw Mountain Landis, a staunch segregationist, has died, possibly opening the doors to the majors for blacks. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Edward Herrmann) starts sending his scouts to Negro league games under the guise of the creation of a Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. (There already was a successful Black Yankees that brought additional revenue to the House that Ruth Built.) Scouts key on Gibson and Paige for their on-field abilities and fan appeal, and on youngster Jackie Robinson (Blair Underwood), a star football player at UCLA and an Army lieutenant, for his strength of “character.” Paige, who pitches three innings daily for the Kansas City Monarchs, is cocksure the majors will make him the first black in the big leagues — quite possibly in tandem with best friend Gibson — and wife Lahoma offers patient support and concern. Gibson, considered the best baseball player around, shows signs of mental instability and a drinking problem — two traits that scare off Rickey. In Paige’s case, age is the drawback. When it becomes apparent Robinson is destined to become the first black player in the major leagues, resentment grows in Paige and Gibson. Paige is able to continue as a showboat (he thrills at having fielders leave the ballfield when Gibson bats) and Lindo limns, with searing clarity, the disappointment of being passed over. Gibson, whose stays in an asylum concern the Dodger brass, cracks violently in front of Gotham Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (Al Rossi), sealing his fate as a lifelong Negro leaguer. Final deflator of the dream is a rainout the day the Paige-Gibson all-stars are to face the best of the white majors in the presence of Major League scouts. Underwood plays Robinson as determined yet confused, cautious in his acceptance of the role Rickey assigns him. Robinson’s collected nature is emphasized over his athleticism, contrasting with the veterans’ determination to cross baseball’s color line. Williamson (“Forrest Gump”) superbly guides Gibson from jocular to unpredictable. As Grace, Ravera offers the definition of unconditional love. Docudrama rings untrue only during characterless segs of radio broadcasts, and bookending of 1954 interviews with Willie Mays (Isaiah Washington). Perhaps the producers felt their trio of stars was insufficient to pull in viewers; by adding the Mays character, filmmakers muddle rather than amplify the importance of the Negro leagues. Most locations expertly capture the era, the ballparks, offices and locker rooms; backlot shots of New York streets are cheesy by comparison. Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan gets marvelously controlled performances out of the large cast, the tension palpable whenever race relations are brought up. Victor H. DuBois’ editing is swift and sweet. Technical adviser Joey Banks, son of former Cubs star Ernie Banks, has all of his charges looking like the real deal. As film studios shy from the Robinson story, “Soul of the Game” barely scrapes the surface of the brilliant athlete’s well-documented life. There is no known footage of Gibson, who hit more than 900 home runs, leaving his character wide open for interpretation; as fascination with the Negro leagues grows, Williamson may well be providing a definitive interpretation. Yet it’s Lindo who carries this telepic by proffering revelations rarely seen in biopics of athletes; his Paige has an integrity to the soul. The real Paige was an enigma for the ages, and Lindo’s portrayal abolishes any obligation to nitpicking facts that “Soul of the Game” may overlook.