Throughout history, there has been a prevailing sense that one group’s ability to enjoy doing something will be inherently threatened by the inclusion of others. This has taken many forms over the ages, and in recent American history has involved exclusive clubs with membership requirements that ban people based on race, religion, and gender. Barriers may not even be set in stone or written, yet attempts to overcome them are still met with many obstacles. The Long Game tells one inspiring story of fighting against prejudices and blazing a trail for inclusion in the process.
JB Peña (Jay Hernandez) works as the superintendent of schools in Del Rio, Texas in the 1950s. The veteran is determined to play golf at the esteemed San Felipe Country Club, where most Mexican-Americans work as caddies since membership is essentially closed to those who look like him. With the help of his war buddy Frank Mitchell (Dennis Quaid), Peña begins working with a group of students at San Felipe High School to train to become the school’s first golf team and show the all-white clientele at the country club what they can do.
The Long Game is based on a true story of a slow road to integration told in Humberto G. Garcia’s 2010 book Mustang Miracle. It presents Peña as someone who others might say doesn’t appear Hispanic or Latino, well-dressed and acting as if he should be accepted everywhere in society. Yet that’s unfortunately not the truth, and the ease with which Mitchell is able to make things happen is certainly dispiriting since Peña tries considerably harder with very little luck. Yet the perseverance is just part of it, since the skill that his players exhibit thanks to their natural talent and rigorous training is what ultimately serves to distinguish them.
There are a number of memorable establishing moments that work to ground this film in the era in which it’s set and to build the stage for their barrier-breaking attempt. When Peña first arrives at a tournament with his team, an official expresses astonishment, saying that he assumed they were all American, to which Peña responds that indeed they are. When the team goes to celebrate an early victory at a diner, they are bluntly refused service and even threatened with a baseball bat when Mitchell tries to confront the owner. The odds are not in this team’s favor, and this is most definitely an underdog story.
Since golf may not be the most intense and fast-paced sport, this film matches that well by showing the painstaking process of perfecting swings and ensuring that presentation is everything. Among the most challenging parts of winning competitions and even just getting to play in the first place is to put on a good show, and Mitchell purposely delivers unrelated good news to the team when they fail to finish towards the top of the competition so their energetic cheering comes off as excellent sportsmanship. When Peña and Mitchell bring their wives to play, Mitchell expressly states to JB’s wife Lucy (Jaina Lee Ortiz) that she’s too good, and losing on purpose will be the best option since humiliating their powerful competition will only make them less willing to think outside the box.
Hernandez and Quaid lead a strong cast whose standouts are the players themselves. It’s also fun to see Cheech Marin in a supporting role as Pollo, a longtime employee at the club who has been waiting for someone like Peña to come along and make use of all the abandoned equipment he has collected over the years. This film is an uplifting tribute to the legacies of the people it portrays, told with a tongue-in-cheek attitude about how unimaginative expectations can lead to the most startling and surprising things.
Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.
The Long Game makes its world premiere in the Narrative Spotlight section at SXSW.