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'Undefeated': A provocative look at race and class in sports

February 22, 2012 | 10:58 pm

The Manassas Tigers 2009 football team is featured in the new documentary "Undefeated."

If we’ve learned anything from the mega-media onslaught over Jeremy Lin, it’s that racial and ethnic stereotypes are still a powerful force in America, especially in the world of sports. My 13-year-old son’s generation is largely colorblind about its sports heroes. If only we could say the same thing about the knuckleheads who write about sports, especially the jerk — excuse me, Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock — who tweeted a nasty remark about Lin’s anatomy the other day, which was followed by a crude ethnic slur in a headline on ESPN’s mobile site.

“Linsanity” inspired comic Larry Wilmore to do a whole ironic riff on “The Daily Show” about the indignity of an Asian American player taking the NBA by storm, right in the middle of Black History Month. When Jon Stewart asked why, as an African American, Wilmore wasn’t more supportive of a person of color’s achievement, Wilmore grouched: “Don’t reduce this to a discussion about my race. This is about his race.”


I bring this up because “Undefeated,” a new documentary that opened last weekend, raises a bundle of provocative questions about how much of a dividing line color is in our lives. The film, directed by T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, is a lovingly crafted portrait of the football team at Manassas High in North Memphis, Tenn. The squad is a cauldron of troubled inner-city kids that undergoes an improbable transformation at the hands of Bill Courtney, a volunteer coach who is just as determined to make a difference in the kids’ lives as he is to win football games.

Most critics have lauded the film. But others have been unsettled by a thorny issue only glancingly noted in the movie: Courtney is white, while his entire team is African American. It’s almost exactly the same setup we saw in “The Blind Side,” the 2009 hit that, like “Undefeated,” focused on a white do-gooder who reached out to help a needy black kid who happened to be a potential NFL football player.

Like “The Blind Side,” “Undefeated” offers a Rorschach test for how people see race in America. At a time when we have a black president, isn’t it time we stopped obsessing about the race of people in our movies? Or in a country where so many people believe that our black president is a Muslim, or not a natural-born citizen, or a man with a “phony theology,” is racism still a wound that hasn’t healed?

From the standpoint of awards, Oscar voters have taken both films to heart. “The Blind Side” earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award while “Undefeated,” distributed by the Weinstein Co., has landed Martin and Lindsay a documentary Oscar nomination. It’s a high honor for the young pair, who are entirely self-taught--neither went to film school.

For the filmmakers, the high point, so far, was showing an early cut of the film to Courtney. “When Bill watched it, he was a big ball of tears,” recalled Martin. “Finally, he laughed and said, ‘OK, show it to me again. I couldn’t bear to watch the first half-hour because of how fat I looked.’”

Martin, who’s 32, and Lindsay, who’s 33, decided to make the film after reading a newspaper story about O.C. Brown, the team’s star 300-pound lineman, who was living with one of the team’s coaches during the season. Brown needed tutoring to get his grades up enough to land a college scholarship. But no tutor would venture into his poverty-stricken neighborhood.

As soon as Martin and Lindsay set up shop in Memphis, they began following the ups and downs of several other players, notably Chavis Daniels, a talented but volatile player who returns to the team after spending 15 months in a youth prison.

Courtney has a deep emotional connection with his players. In one of the most powerful moments in the film, we discover that Courtney, like many members of the team, grew up in a fatherless family. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that the Weinsteins own the remake rights to “Undefeated,” since its narrative essence — a coach helping a team of troubled kids triumph over adversity — is at the core of dozens of classic sports films.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but ponder whom I’d want to cast as Courtney in the remake. After all, it’s easy to assemble a who’s who of great actors who’ve played football coaches, including Gene Hackman (“The Replacements”), Denzel Washington (“Remember the Titans”), Al Pacino (“Any Given Sunday”), Billy Bob Thornton (“Friday Night Lights”), Dennis Quaid (“The Express”) and Ed Harris (“Radio”).

With the exception of Washington, those coaches are all white, which raises an unsettling question: Why do so many movies about African Americans have a white protagonist at their core? As the Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson put it, the feelings the kids in “Undefeated” might have about their white coach is a question “that crosses a viewer’s mind, and one that doesn’t get an answer” in the film. When I asked the same question of the filmmakers, they insisted that race wasn’t an issue. (For the record, Lindsay is white and Martin is biracial.)

“In ‘Blind Side,’ they make a point of bringing up race, especially when you see that Sandra Bullock’s wealthy white friends are shocked by what she’s doing,” explains Lindsay. “For us, the kids set the tone. They never brought it up, so we didn’t bring it up. There’s a valid criticism to why feature films get financed that are about white heroes in a black setting. We just told the story we saw and for the kids, race wasn’t on their minds.”

If race isn’t on their minds, class certainly is. When Brown goes to live in his coach’s sprawling home, he says the wealthy manicured subdivision took some getting used to. He remarks on how people jog around the area and says if he did that in his neighborhood, people might think he was running from the police.

Of course, in America race is almost always on someone’s mind, which is why when Chavis drives his coach crazy with his unruly behavior, refusing a ride in his truck, Courtney blurts out: “You don’t like driving with white people?”

If nothing else, “Undefeated” is an indispensable example of the quixotic passion that sports inspires in us all. “Sports is embedded in the fabric of America,” Martin said. “People identify themselves through sports teams. It’s the one thing in our culture where, regardless of where you come from, you have a common passion that breaks down the walls between us.”

Still, as much as I admire the film’s storytelling, I wish it had spent a little more time exploring the chasm between the wealthy white Memphis enclaves and the kids’ desperately poor inner-city neighborhoods. Sports is one of the few ways to inspire honest discussions about race and inequality in America. Which is why it’s so bracing to see phenomena like Jeremy Lin pushing us past all the usual sports cliches and toward a deeper understanding of ourselves.

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: The Manassas Tigers 2009 football team is featured in the new documentary "Undefeated."

Credit: Dan Lindsay/TJ Martin/The Weinstein Company