FEATURE ARTICLES

THE LONG GAME NO SHORTCUT TO ASSIMILATION

By: Joseph R. Castel

The Long Game is an inspirational true-life story of five Mexican American teens who on their first attempt, win the State High School Golf Championship, in Del Rio, Texas in 1957. The film centers around JB Peña (Jay Hernandez of Magnum P.I.), the city’s new school superintendent who is rejected from the white country club in town because he’s Mexican American. Shortly after Pena is snubbed, the World War II veteran enlists five high school teenagers, who work as caddies at the country club, to form their school’s first golf team, “The Del Rio Mustangs.” Peña coaches the boys with the help of his crusty war buddy and former golf pro, Frank Mitchell (Dennis Quaid).

An actual member of the Del Rio Country Club, Frank’s salty character doesn’t give a damn what the elitist club snobs think of him rocking the status quo by acting as the assistant coach to the Mustangs. Early in his career, Quaid starred in Breaking Away, probably the ultimate underdog film of the 1970s.

In this underdog themed story, Peña wants to rub it in the club director’s face that Mexican Americans will play on the greens, not as members or caddies, but as competitors in the state’s high school tournament which the club hosts annually.

Still, watching Hernandez’ character grovel for club membership at the beginning of the film is painfully awkward. That’s probably because most Latinos would never plead with a white man to be accepted as a member of a hoity-toity club that’s obviously racist. Hernandez’ character may speak perfect English and dress impeccably as a professional educator, but its’ obvious he’s unable to check the color of his skin, along with his hat, at the door. It’s not easy to judge Peña’s motivations, as they are a bit ambiguous at the start of the film. Is he looking for personal vindication or trying to emulate the upper class? Perhaps it’s unfair to judge people of color who had to navigate a hostile cultural environment during an era when they could be denied service in public places.

The problem with films that cover racism as a theme, is that the narrative can get cliché and formulaic. Characters can be one-dimensional stereotypes such as the racist cop. These stories can also get heavy handed and preachy. The Long Game, fortunately, avoids most of these tropes due to its exceptional writing and its fine performances from Hernandez, Quaid and Julian Works as “Joe”.

Works is a standout as the hotshot hothead with a chip on shoulder who just happens to be the team’s best player. Even though Joe is the character the story focuses on, the four other teen players are carefully woven into the narrative in such a way to avoid cliché pitfalls.

Still, the film’s narrative checks off the list of predictable scenes of injustices, such as the boys being denied service at a diner, and the “No dogs, No Mexicans” sign posted at the gas station where the boys meet each day. Each situation, however, is handled with deft sincerity. When Quaid’s character, Frank, grabs the baseball bat from the racist short-order cook, who plans on clubbing him for not leaving the diner, Joe runs outside to work on his backswing. The hothead player smashes golf balls through the diner’s windows.

This scene harkens back to director George Stevens’ monumental film Giant. Released in 1955, Giant was a major film dealing with the same issues in 1950s’ Texas, where the climactic scene takes place in a diner and Rock Hudson’s character defends the right of a Mexican family to be served. Except, Quad’s character doesn’t get beat to pulp like Rock Hudson did. The Mustangs and their coaches flee from the diner in their car, laughing victoriously.

Cheech Marin plays the eccentric, comedic relief grounds keeper of the country club. Marin is not nearly as nutty as Bill Murray’s grounds keeper in Caddy Shack, the ultimate golf film, but Marin’s oddball character is entertaining to watch as he helps the boys by giving them stolen golf clubs. It’s Hernandez, however, that really holds the film together with his impressive, subtle performance as the coach striving for equality on the playing field. There’s an undercurrent of simmering anger that he keeps a lid on while teaching his players to also hold in their anger and channel it towards being their best so that they can succeed.

In an Entertainment Weekly film review, one of the real high school golfers, Gene Vasquez, now 85, explains that he and his fellow Del Rio Mustangs faced excruciating poverty and “brutal” discrimination in Texas of the 1950s. Their parents were migrant farmworkers who were illiterate. Vasquez explains in the article that since they weren’t allowed to play on the greens where they worked, the boys made their own golf course out in the country, complete with sand traps made out of cactus patches. They imitated the golfers they caddied for and found the game to be challenging and fun. It’s scenes like this in the movie that make The Long Game worth watching.

The Long Game is in theatres now and also available on Apple +