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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the 2017 documentary Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story looks at a historic 1955 Florida Little League Regional game between a black team and the only white team in that region willing to play them. The backdrop is the Jim Crow South -- where black 14-year-old Emmett Till had been lynched that very year in Mississippi, and where blacks couldn't use whites-only restrooms, water fountains, restaurants, or hotels. Interviews with men now in their 70s from both teams offer their views on racism and the importance of the experience they shared. Famed professional players Cal Ripken Jr., Hank Aaron, and Gary Sheffield also weigh in. Newsreel images of violence against blacks are shown in montages. Pictures of a horrifically-beaten face are shown briefly. A black Little League team of 12-year-olds is told by white adults that if they come to compete against a white team they will be sent back "in caskets." A black man recalls seeing a wounded white man in Vietnam who refused "the 'N' word blood" despite his need for a transfusion.
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What's the story?
LONG TIME COMING: A 1955 BASEBALL STORY looks at a memorable and historic meeting between two Little League teams in the racist South of 1955. The boys on the Jaycees, the Pensacola black team, now in their 70s, recount the thrill of finally being permitted to play in the largely white Little League and the disappointment after winning their division to learn that white teams were refusing to play them in the district and regional playoffs. With each forfeiture, the Jaycees advanced, as per Little League rules, only to be disinvited from playing at the next level. A white Orlando team's coach actually resigns rather than lead his team against black boys. As for the kids, both black and white, they just wanted to play. Also in their 70s now, thoughtful members of the white team admit that segregation so separated the races that there was little opportunity to mix with or know blacks as people when they were kids, allowing ignorance to foster prejudice. One admits his parents were prejudiced and he didn't want to grow up like them. But others use their lack of interaction with blacks to excuse inexplicable views, including that today blacks are no longer affected by prejudice, despite plentiful statistical evidence to the contrary. One white player can't understand the need for a Black Lives Matter movement, arguing that all lives should matter, ignoring multiple police shootings of unarmed black people and also the way that centuries of banning blacks from good schools, good jobs, and good opportunities have disadvantaged an entire race. Even Southern white men in their 70s who profess the need to love everyone, as dictated by the Bible, still can't understand all the black anger. On the other hand, a black team member is moved simply by the fact that the white team members are willing to meet with the black team so many years later. The film sets the meeting against the long history of racism as depicted in a montage showing some breakthroughs -- Sidney Poitier and Halle Berry winning Oscars, Thurgood Marshall becoming a Supreme Court Justice, and Barak Obama being elected President. A white man recognizes that prejudice is a natural result of keeping different people separate. He observes that when people have no real experience of what other people are truly like, "There's a tendency to fill in the blanks, and usually you're wrong." The movie ends on a note of hope inspired by a happenstance event unplanned by the filmmaker.
Is it any good?
This documentary packs a huge emotional punch and does its best to demonstrate the price so many have paid for racism in America. Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story shows the progress that's been made, while also reminding us that racism still manifests across the country. Those high points make the film a worthwhile piece of work that all schoolchildren should see.
But the film's execution by director and writer Jon Strong leaves much room for improvement. One man cries in church, but we are given no context nor any reason why. Better editing, better selection of interviews, and the cutting of meandering moments would all do much to make its important message more attractive and accessible to audiences that most need to see it. It takes far too long to get to the movie's important pieces of information -- that the black team ultimately played a white team, that things didn't go that well, that some of the white team members still don't understand how racism affects black people, and that the film ends with an incredibly moving encounter. The encounter offers hope of better race relations, even as proponents of equality both white and black worry that American racism and xenophobia appear to be less hidden and more vocal in recent years. Interviews with Major League Baseball players Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken Jr., Gary Sheffield and with former U.N. ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young don't add much to this already-rich narrative. Although boasting their participation may have lent credibility to the project in the fundraising stages, their contributions really do little to help tell this startling story.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the progress made against racism in America since the 1950s. What are some ways conditions for and attitudes about black people have improved? In what ways do institutionalized prejudices in the white community still hold black people's progress back? What did Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story suggest about racism today?
How do you think the repercussions of slavery that supported the Southern states' economy still linger in American treatment of black people?
Schools and jobs that weren't open to people of color are now more open but there's much room for improvement. Do you think we will one day live in a color-blind world? Why or why not?
In what ways do you think a more vocal and publicized white supremacist movement in this country is related to historic views of differences between the races?
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