Script reflects grimy reality
by Richard Roeper
"Yeah bitch, we the Kekambas, whassup?"
--Little Leaguer greeting Keanu Reeves' character in the screenplay of "Hardball."
Despite what Hollywood may be thinking about Chicago based on the hysterical declarations of some of our top public officials last week about the making of the movie "Hardball," we're not really Mayberry, R.F.D.
We're a sophisticated city, with indoor plumbing and everything. We understand that life is life and the movies are the movies, and they are not the same thing. The movies are bigger than life, shinier than life, and more exaggerated than life.
Chicago has been portrayed as everything from the honorary home of the "Blues Brothers" to the place where Ferris Bueller makes mischief on his day off to the site of a hostage situation in a high-rise ("The Negotiator"), a revenge killer on the loose ("Payback") and a pyromaniac fireman killing at random ("Backdraft").
In 1996, eight square city blocks were leveled by an explosion on the South Side in "Chain Reaction" with Keanu Reeves--Mr. "Hardball"--but we're not holding that against him because it wasn't real.
In 1992, the residents of Cabrini-Green were haunted by a mysterious, urban legend bogeyman killer in "Candyman."
And, boy, did Emilio Estevez and Cuba Gooding Jr. have a tough time when they took a detour and got lost in the bad part of town in "Judgment Night."
Chicago in the movies is not always a pretty place. We understand that.
I don't know if Mayor Daley or Paul Vallas or even Keanu Reeves has read the Daniel Coyle book that inspired this movie, but I have--and it's no bouquet of roses to the city. Sure, it's an uplifting and inspiring story about the formation of the African-American Little League on the Near North Side, and there are plenty of praiseworthy characters, including the narrator, several coaches, many players and even former Mayor Jane Byrne and her late husband Jay McMullen, who came up with the original idea.
But the book is no fairy tale. Some of the kids are little snots who are potential gang-bangers, and some of the coaches are egotistical blowhards who get caught up in petty squabbles and occasionally lose sight of the true purpose of the league.
It's a real story with real people.
A story that reads like a movie. At one point Steven Spielberg owned the rights and Jim Carrey was mentioned as a possible star, but eventually the movie was given the green light with Keanu Reeves' name attached. Not a bad choice at all.
Of course there would be multiple rewrites of the script--all major films go through revisions in the scripting stage. The copy that has Daley and Co. up in arms is credited to Lewis Collick, with "revisions by" Carl Franklin and further revisions by John Gatins. (It also claims to be based on the "novel," which Hardball was not.)
So when I heard that Reeves would be playing a hard-core gambler who gets roped into coaching the kids as a way of paying off a debt--none of which happened in the book--I wasn't surprised. Whether it's "The Perfect Storm," "Erin Brockovich" or "Boys Don't Cry," motion pictures based on actual events will compress events, combine or invent characters and change time lines in order to suit the story, and that's not an easy thing to absorb for the people who see their lives or the lives of their loved ones turned into a 100-minute feature. That's why each of the aforementioned films, while praised widely and loved by many moviegoers, has been embroiled in various controversies, lawsuits and loud complaints from the real-world sidelines.
And so it goes with "Hardball." Even before principal shooting has been completed, some of the coaches are protesting the way they're portrayed in the script, and community leaders and elected officials are saying the movie is a cynical misrepresentation of the real events that transpired.
Oh, and the neighborhood kids who are in the movie are being exploited as well. Made to say bad words and forced to miss school.
Give me a break. With all due respect to the Chicago Public Schools system, I dare say a kid who's getting paid to spend time on a movie set--a movie set honoring strict laws about child labor, a movie set with the requisite tutors on hand, a movie set where people work hard to produce popular art--is getting more of an educational experience than he would sitting in a classroom for a few days.
And the temperatures weren't any cooler in the classrooms last week anyway.
As for the expletives to be fired off by some of the kids, come on, the cute ruffians in"The Bad News Bears" were cussing a quarter-century ago. I've spent time around kids who live in Cabrini-Green, and you know what? They could probably teach me a few creative obscenities. (And the same goes for some of the kids who live on the North Shore.)
It's too bad Mayor Daley didn't say something like this last week: "I understand there are some concerns about the content of the movie and the language used by some of the children, and we're going to look into that. But Chicago has benefitted greatly from the presence of film crews in this city over the last couple of decades, and we want to continue our relationship with Hollywood and with local filmmakers. Besides, it's only fair to reserve judgment on a movie until it's in the theaters."
But of course he never says things like that, unless he's issuing a prepared statement. Instead he gets sweaty and blustery and says things like, "They have many religious people who volunteer; they even have parents. ... Don't portray all the good that they've done. They drive the kids home. ... We drive these guys home after ball practice; we don't beat these kids up. ... "
Whatever that means.
In the midst of all this huffing and puffing about what's in "Hardball," perhaps the city should shut its collective mouth and be grateful the script doesn't contain any mention of another real-life character who was a tangential participant in the Cabrini-Green Little League--a guy named Anthony Garrett, who occasionally worked as a volunteer umpire.
Garrett won't be in the movie, but he was big news in Chicago for a time, after he was tried and convicted for killing a 7-year-old boy who was walking to school, a crime so senseless and shocking it attracted the attention of the nation, including the White House.
Anthony Garrett killed Dantrell Davis.
If "Hardball" stays true to the script in circulation, yes, there will be kids swearing, and, yes, there will be moments of violence--but there is an overall tone of courage and warmth permeating the story. Chicago is merely the backdrop for a theme Hollywood loves to explore: