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FINDING BUCK MCHENRY (TV MOVIE) (director: Charles Burnett; screenwriters: Alfred Slote/David Field/based on the novel by Alfred Slote; cinematographer: John L. Demps; editor: Dorian Harris; music: Stephen James Taylor; cast: Ossie Davis (Mack Henry/Buck McHenry), Ruby Dee (Mrs. Annie Henry), Ernie Banks (Ollie Johnson), Michael Schiffman (Jason Ross), Duane McLaughlin(Aaron Henry), Michael Rhoades(Jim Davis), Jim Millington (Brad), Karl Pruner (Tom Ross), Catherine Blythe (Mrs. Ross), Kevin Jubinville (Chuck Axelrod), Megan Bower (Kim Axelrod), Don Dickinson(Coach Barker); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Stephen J. Turnbull; Showtime/Family TV Video; 2000)
All you have to know is that it stars the great Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Fine family fare, as this Showtime TV movie has an ear for baseball nostalgia about the old Negro League, is an earnest coming-of-age film about a precocious adolescent, an informative baseball lore pic and an optimistic tale about changing race relations in the South. The only villains are from the past. It’s directed with suburban sensibility by black pioneering indie film-maker legend Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”/”The Glass Shield”/”To Sleep With Anger”), with a feel good teleplay by Alfred Slote and David Field. It’s based on the children’s novel by Slote. All you have to know is that it stars the great Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

Fanatic baseball collector and Mark McGuire worshiper, the dreamy-eyed 11-year-old Jason Ross (Michael Schiffman), can’t translate his love for the game into ball playing skills and gets cut from his Little League team. When the Georgia Stadium town’s new single parent, the TV reporter Chuck Axelrod (Kevin Jubinville), a caring dad, comes to town and discovers there are no current openings for his adolescent daughter Kim (Megan Bower) to play on a LL team, the coach of the established team (Don Dickinson) suggests that Chuck start an expansion team with all the rejects. Anxious to play ball, Jason signs on and the friendly local baseball card store owner, Jim Davis (Michael Rhoades), agrees to sponsor the team once there’s a coach in place. Jason thereby recruits the school janitor Mack Henry (Ossie Davis, 83 at the time), to manage, after he finds out he’s versed in first-hand knowledge about the Negro League. The league was started because Major League baseball was segregated at the time. Mack is reluctant, but his wife Annie (Ruby Dee) encourages him when she sees it makes his sullen adolescent grandson Aaron (Duane McLaughlin) happy for the first time since he came to live with them after his parents were killed in an auto accident.

While in Jim’s store, Jason looks over the Negro baseball cards and discovers in the 1940s a legendary pitcher for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Buck McHenry, pitched for them for three years and won 90 games, but after a brush with the law vanished and according to the Negro League museum director, in Kansas City, Ollie Johnson (Ernie Banks, Hall of Fame shortstop for the Chicago Cubs), his good friend, Buck is dead and buried. But Jason is convinced that Mack is Buck, and pursues that possibility despite the denials by Buck and that his lawyer dad wants him to stop.

The pic gets to its major league point that discrimination in America was what caused Buck to become Mack, and because of the talented director and the brilliant subdued performance by Mr. Davis, this is actually, as unlikely as it might seem, a great film in this genre and one worth catching.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”