OK, that’s not exactly what SBN’s Steven Goldman had to say about the 1989 Kevin Costner weep-fest, instead deeming it, “ a sentimental, treacly lie about something important.” Among the film’s numerous shortcomings, Goldman is particularly troubled by “the film-breaking oversight that turns the whole thing into a rather painful, self-exculpating lie,” to wit, the star turn of James Earl Jones as the fictitious Terrance Mann, and following, oft-quoted speech :
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and could be again.“
Oh, you mean like the color line? With the exception of Gil Hodges, every player named in the film never played a single major league game with a black man. Were not allowed to. Did not ask to do so. “All that was once was good and could be again” includes a system of apartheid that extended to almost every corner of the land, from separate drinking fountains to a decades-long series of extra-legal executions of African Americans throughout the country that totaled well into the thousands — and, oh, by the way, from Moses Fleetwood Walker to Jackie Robinson, a black man could not play baseball with a white man, not with Shoeless Joe Jackson, not with Buck Weaver, not with Moonlight Graham, not with Gil Hodges in his first call-up. Terrence Mann whitewashes baseball’s past in that scene (choice of words very intentional) and the character sells out his race, his blinkered, forgetful country, and himself.
In 1987, Jones won a Tony as the lead in August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize play “Fences,” in which he portrayed a man so disappointed that his professional baseball career was stunted by the major league color line that his anger has devoured him from the inside out. There is some irony in this given the part he plays in “Field of Dreams.” In the film, Ray says Mann as “a pioneer of the civil rights and the anti-war movement,” but saying it doesn’t mean that his big moment in the film doesn’t sell out the civil rights movement. Similarly, Jones himself is proud of the film, his performance, and his climactic speech (as well he should be), but that doesn’t change what the speech attempts to sidestep. I also hasten to point out that while it is possible to view the Mann speech about being about lower-case b “baseball” rather than big-B Major League Baseball with its history of segregation, this film is very specifically concerned with getting to play in major league games (that is the unresolved wish of the Moonlight Graham character) with actual segregation-era major league players. Any decoupling of the Mann speech from the color line is granting the story a sensitivity it isn’t even trying to earn