Friday, March 16, 2012

Undefeated: Sometimes a Simple Story is Good Enough

A scene from the Academy Award winning documentary Undefeated

It’s no surprise that Daniel Lindsay’s and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated won the Best Documentary Feature award at this year’s Oscars. This highly inspirational tale of a white volunteer coach guiding an all-black football team to their best season in history can’t help but strike a pleasing, receptive chord in today’s polarized United States, including among the voters who chose it for the Oscar. But while the movie isn’t startlingly original or groundbreaking, it’s a gripping and even, dare I say, heart-warming film that proves once again that truth can often outdo fiction when it comes to edge-of-your seat storytelling.

Undefeated chronicles the 2009 season of the Manassas Tigers, a Memphis football squad that has gotten used to perpetual losing seasons, even as its players struggle to deal with the stigma of being ranked lowest among the low in the state of Tennessee. They’ve even been reduced to accepting payments to play against, and be pulverized by, vastly superior teams in the off season. However, when local businessman Bill Courtney volunteers to coach the Tigers, who don’t have enough money to hire a full time coach, things begin to change. More than six years in as volunteer coach, he’s on the brink of not only getting a winning team for a change but possibly even guiding them, for the first time in their hundred and ten year history, into the playoffs. (Manassas is actually a well-equipped school when it comes to desks, computers and other classroom tools, but in football-mad small-town America, that’s not as important as athletics, except to the state funding bodies which rightfully put education first.)

Coach Bill Courtney and O.C. Brown
Undefeated is thus a traditional rags-to-riches sports story, except, of course, it’s all true. And that truth can’t help but get you onside with the team and rooting for them all the while since their stories are such hopeful, optimistic ones. Focusing on three of the players and Coach Courtney, the skillfully directed Undefeated ropes you in, not least because its personalities and subjects are so colourful and compelling, starting with Courtney himself. A mildly profane, excitable but kindly man who pays even more attention to Manassas’s kids than his own during football season, he’s also prone to aphorisms such as “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals character.” That may sound hokey, but it’s also fact-based, as can be seen with the three young men who are at the centre of the picture. Montrail (whose nickname in Money) is struggling to deal with the life-altering ramifications of a serious football injury; O.C. is trying to get good grades so he can go on to college; and Chavis, just out of juvenile detention, has anger issues he must get under control if he is to stay on the team. As they cope with life’s setbacks and difficulties, the Tigers begin to win and win, and soon are on a streak that could lead them to the championship.

Undefeated doesn’t belabor its racial particulars – the coach happens to be white as are most of the assistant coaches, but they care deeply about their charges and that’s what matters most – though it glosses over the de facto segregation that seems to be prevalent in Tennessee. (The school teams Manassas plays are either all black or all white.) And when Mike Ray, Courtney’s white assistant coach brings O.C. into his home and hires a tutor to help with his grades (except for O.C’s joking about how he’s perceived when jogging in the all-white, upscale neighbourhood Mike lives in), the racial factor is overly muted, even downplayed. The U.S. is hardly the racist cesspool its detractors label it, but neither is it devoid of racial tensions or separation as any visit to a large American city can reveal. (Any similarities to The Blind Side are entirely coincidental though the racial conundrums were dealt with more head-on in that fictional (albeit fact-based) movie.) And while Undefeated follows in the footsteps of the similarly themed, but grittier Steve James documentary movies Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, Manassas’s kids seem less affected by gun violence and gangs and more hard done by broken families and economic deprivation. There is one chilling sequence in the film where the Tigers are threatened with harm if they defeat one of their opponents but the filmmakers fail to fill us in on why that squad bears such ill will towards Manassas.

I’m not sure what directors Lindsay and Martin would have done if Manassas hadn’t begun winning the way they did – they began the film as a study of Courtney and soon lucked out with a bigger, more exciting tale – but the upwards trajectory of the film, including a heartbreaking epilogue involving Coach Courtney, was tailor-made for them. Granted, the best documentaries usually break new ground or reveal or inform us of a story angle we haven’t seen before, but as the memorable Undefeated shows, sometimes just telling a simple, straight-ahead tale is good enough.

 – Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He is currently teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, which began on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

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