The most emotionally arresting moments of HBO's "Soul of the Game" occur far away from the baseball diamond--giving the film a deeper meaning beyond the implied cultural references of the clever title.
Mykelti Williamson ("Forrest Gump") stands naked on a Washington rooftop watching fireworks explode overhead, his eyes wide with hopeless frustration, bewilderment filling his voice. "Dizzy Dean once told me," he says, "that if the Cardinals had me and Satch [Satchel Paige], we could wrap the pennant up before the Fourth of July and spend the rest of the summer fishing."
As the bright blues and reds expand overhead, the viewer feels, like Williamson's character Josh Gibson, that time is running out, that his dream will never be achieved as long as the color barrier stands in the way. The moment is particularly heartbreaking because, three months before Jackie Robinson was called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Gibson died at 35 of a brain tumor.
With more than 972 career home runs, Gibson was the only man ever to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium, but he competed at a time, like many others whom the American public have never heard of, when African Americans were barred from playing in the major leagues. "Soul of the Game" brings us inside their world and shows how their accomplishments, long deferred, changed the face of American sport and society in general.
Bolstered by top-notch performances from Delroy Lindo ("Get Shorty") and Blair Underwood ("L.A. Law"), the film succeeds brilliantly. Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan pays meticulous attention to the flashy, showboating styles of Negro League play (Paige at one point clears the outfield for a lighthearted one-on-one showdown with Gibson), but also takes the viewer to smoky boardrooms where the owners discuss the profit motives and racial implications of integrating sports.
As a companion piece to Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary on PBS, "Soul of the Game" brings a bygone era back to life with a verve and an emotional depth that makes one realize just how far things have progressed in sports--even if the rest of America lags far behind. * "Soul of the Game" airs at 8 tonight on HBO.