by George Wolf
As James Earl Jones so eloquently told us in Field of Dreams., you can’t tell the story of America without baseball. And in The League, acclaimed documentarian Sam Pollard builds a gracefully powerful reminder about how important the Negro Leagues were to both game and country.
Pollard (Mr. Soul!, MLK/FBI, Oscar nominee for 4 Little Girls) weaves together the interviews, archival footage and re-enactments with the care of a master craftsman. He builds a timeline that informs and inspires, introducing us to professional players – such as Moses Fleetwood Walker – who came before Jackie Robinson but were left behind once the Supreme Court endorsed “separate but equal” in 1896.
And when the Black community “only had themselves to rely on,” we see how a new path to success was forged, thanks to the visionaries such as Rube Foster and a litany of players who got the attention of white sports writers with their athletic, fast-paced style of play.
Of course, all of this is a baseball fan’s dream, but Pollard (with Executive Producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) also achieves compelling resonance through socioeconomic lessons. The film illustrates how symbiotic relationships developed between the Negro Leagues and the social, political and geographical movements of the day, creating a fascinating push and pull that continued through the integration of Major League Baseball.
And speaking of integration, the story doesn’t end once Robinson and Larry Doby debuted in the National and American Leagues, respectively. In fact, the film is ready with some lesser known receipts from a less-than-admirable side of Branch Rickey’s decision to add Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Certainly, the story of the Negro Leagues is worthy of a multi-part mini series, but The League lands as both a satisfying overview and an enticing invitation to dig deeper. There is a wonderful sense of joy here. It’s a feeling born from a community that loved the game, players that lived to make it their own, and a movement that never backed down from the challenge of “finding other ways to succeed.”