Having grown up in Flint, Michigan, I had to go see the comedy Semi-Pro on its opening weekend where it topped the national box office. The first movie set in Flint since Michael Moore’s landmark 1989 documentary Roger & Me had me curious as to how the old hometown would come off. Well, let’s just say the movie has about as much to do with the “Vehicle City” as it does with real basketball. Had the movie been set in Gary, Indiana or Rockford, Illinois, I probably would have passed.
The plot of the movie written by Scot Armstrong and directed by Kent Alterman has to do with a struggling American Basketball Association team in the ABA’s final year before the league’s 1976 merger with the NBA that saw the San Antonio Spurs, New York Nets, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers join the elder league and the rest of the ABA franchises fold.
Will Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, who had a one-hit wonder of a record, a raunchy soul song called Love Me Sexy. (We find late in the movie that he stole the song from his deceased mother, played in a cameo by the great Patti LaBelle.) Moon uses the profits from the song to become owner, promoter, coach and starting power forward for the Flint Tropics. He finds out about the merger at an owners’ meeting, acts like an idiot yet, somehow forces the league to accept that the top four teams will get into the NBA. So, his “Tropics” (hey, the NBA’s Utah franchise is called the “Jazz” and LA’s is the “Lakers!”) set off to grab Fourth Place with a late season run aided by the addition of an over-the-hill, ex-NBA player and Flint native, ably played by Woody Harrelson.
Ferrell plays the 70’s look for all it’s worth: big Caddie, platforms, fur-fringed long coats, gawdawful polyester checked clothes. Yet, a lot of the movie doesn’t ring authentic to the time; from settings that could be anywhere, anytime to LaBelle’s Mom Moon given credit for inventing the Alley-Oop shot to the lack of the hippie and Black Nationalist cultures. His Caddie would have undoubtedly been a donated, free use Buick, probably a LeSabre or Electra 225.
Andre “3000” Benjamin is good in the role of the best player on the team, though nowhere near as funny as he was in Be Cool–the second of Elmore Leonard’s Chili Palmer novels turned movie. A couple of hilariously mismatched announcers, dancing girls and an assortment of ABA promotional antics such as bear wrestling and, of course, the red, white and blue ball of Dr. J. fame — and the weirdest lewd reuniting with an old flame ever filmed — round out the scene; the last, just one of the reasons for the R rating. It’s a somewhat decent ensemble cast. And, oh yeah, they win Fourth Place, but are still denied the NBA Holy Grail. The movie has lots of classic cars (hey, it’s Flint!), weird leisure suits, huge lapels, platforms shoes, short basketball shorts and ubiquitous Afros. All in all though, it’s a bawdy, tiresome, not-that-funny mess of a movie. I give it one star. Yet, I just know I’m going to see a lot of “Let’s Get Tropical” (the lame team slogan) on T-shirts this summer.
And In a Supporting Role
But what about Flint? We see scenes of downtown Flint that look better than the actual. The late 20th Century wrought-iron “Vehicle City” Arches that replicate the seven that were in downtown Flint in the early 20th Century (long gone when I was a kid) look nice and keep one from noticing the boarded-up storefronts along the main drag, Saginaw Street. “Vehicle City” actually was the slogan of the pre-auto city which was then known for making horse-drawn carriages. It was not the restored common nickname until the Buick of “Buick Town” pulled the plug on Flint back in the Roger & Me days.
The long-closed Capitol Theater has a lit Marquee in the movie. (Michael Moore famously could not find an existing theater in Flint to premiere his first movie. I patronized at least seven in my days there.) The home court of the Tropics, the Flint Fairgrounds Coliseum, is actually the Michigan Fairgrounds Coliseum in Detroit. A 25 foot statue of Alfred E. Neuman of Mad Magazine fame was moved from outside a Flint-area shopping mall to take up residence at the entryway to the coliseum for the movie. What Neuman has to do with Flint is a mystery to me.
Flint’s Industrial Mutual Association’s (IMA) auditorium, which was where amateur teams of my youth played and where I played in a couple City League championship games, was altered in 1984 to make way for the ill-fated AutoWorld indoor theme park of Roger & Me infamy. Moore showed the demolition of AutoWorld itself in his 1997 film The Big One. Flint really did have a semi-pro team for a few seasons, the Flint Pros of the Continental Basketball Association. The Pros played in the early 1970’s and starred my and my buddies’ aging childhood idols, Justus Thigpen (41 points per game average!) and Gene Summers.
The Flint River, a cesspool for decades that’s now been cleaned up (a side benefit of out-sourcing?) appears in a couple nice shots. None of the hundreds of rotting, boarded-up, burned-out houses are shown. The current Crack Scourge is nowhere to be seen. But, then neither are any of the drug issues of the 70’s, though there is one recurring skinny aging hippie. The sole drugs we see are tobacco and alcohol – a lot of alcohol.
A downtown alley features prominently in one pitiful drunk-in-a-dumpster scene. A number of shots are set outside (and inside) The Kremlin Bar on Martin Luther King Avenue – the former Detroit Street that I walked the mile home from Church and School for years. The Kremlin is unlike any bar I knew of in segregated Flint–interracial, upscale and funky.
The only thing I’d recommend about this movie is the soundtrack. It’s a great mix of 70’s soul music–War, Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, the Ohio Players, etc.
But the biggest insult of all to Flint is this: Jackie Moon is introduced before the last game as “the man who has done more for Flint than anyoneother than Henry Ford!” And, some folks complain that Michael Moore needs a fact checker (not that he does; have you noticed his unblemished lawsuit record?)! Henry Ford made a point of avoiding Flint – the home of his chief rivals; Billy Durant, Alfred P. Sloan and the philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott, and others, who together founded General Motors and made Flint its hometown.
Who actually did do more for Flint than anyone? A case can be made for C. S. Mott, who indeed did a lot. The story is he brought GM to the table with the UAW; ending the Sit-Down Strike and leading to years of labor peace and profits for GM, when the other owner/tycoons had the National Guard in place to violently evict the strikers. Mott gave up most of his estate to and funded many of the buildings of the Community College that now bears his name, funded the first ever nationally-renowned Community Schools program and even served seven terms as mayor and lived in Flint until he died at age 97. The foundation that bears his name still donates millions annually to Flint-area efforts.
That noted, I would still have to go with Walter Reuther, who along with his brothers Victor and Roy, the great union organizer John L. Lewis and the hundreds of courageous 1936-37 Sit-Down Strikers made the United Auto Workers (UAW) into the force that made 1940–1965 Flint the closest thing to a workers’ utopia we’ve seen anywhere and led to the creation of the Worker Middle Class, not the Professional Class that always was more a part of “Management” anyway, but a manufacturing workers’ class that earned a living wage (entire families lived well on one wage); workers who had family health care within the auto plants; a very progressive, if not revolutionary school system; homes built by GM and sold to workers at reasonable prices, etc.; even streetcars from the neighborhoods to the plants, though those were gone by the mid-50’s once workers could afford cars themselves.
It’s hard knowing what Flint gained and lost in its hundred year auto-manufacturing binge. It’s quite odd when the fate of the movie’s lovable losers-turned-winners Flint Tropics ends so eerily similar to Flint’s own rise and downturn; with the city losing its suddenly well-loved ABA team — every dying industrial town needs a feel-good story — yet only Benjamin’s “Coffee Black” amongst all the players and other team employees reaches the NBA goal. With Flint continuing to hemorrhage jobs and retirees pensions and health care at risk, the inspired underdog that makes it through teamwork only to see it vanish because the rules get changed at the last minute is just not that funny.
MICHAEL DONNELLY was born in Flint (the hospital is long gone) and was schooled in Flint (the schools are no more) and is a graduate of Mott College (it is a major Flint cultural/educational resource). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org