24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: The Blind Side

'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.

RELATED: Clint Eastwood's Super Bowl: Chrysler vs. conservatives

Prince Fielder's megabucks contract: Is sports the new showbiz?

--Patrick Goldstein

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

Credit: Dan Lindsay/TJ Martin/The Weinstein Company


Sundance 2011: Can the documentary 'Buck' pull a 'Blind Side'?

January 24, 2011 |  4:00 am


Is it possible that a documentary film could cross enough cultural, geographic and demographic lines to become a mainstream phenomenon, without a political agenda or shock value? That's the question L.A. Times film critic Betsy Sharkey is asking at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

If ever a documentary had that everyman potential, she says, it is "Buck," a film with a sensibility like "The Blind Side" that some might underestimate for its plainspoken power.

A quintessential up-by-the-bootstraps story about a man who actually wears boots that have straps, "Buck" is the tale of a charismatic real-life horse whisperer, an earthy, soft-spoken philosopher who can tame troubled souls, be they man or beast. According to Sharkey, he's the kind of unsung hero that America loves to love. Read more here, and check back in the coming days for an interview with Buck Brannaman.

Photo: A scene from "Buck." Credit: Cindy Meehl


Predicting Oscar: Best bets for best picture

March 5, 2010 |  7:00 am

GraphicMuch like erratic swings in the stock market, the fates and fortunes of films in the Oscar race rise and fall with each passing awards show and critic's top 10 list.

A closer look at the winners from the film awards handed out so far this season would seem to indicate a clear favorite for best picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday: "The Hurt Locker."

The Kathryn Bigelow-directed film has been nominated by each of eight major industry guilds and critics groups that we looked at for the chart at left -- and it won half of the top honors.

The next closest competitor: "Up in the Air," with two wins and nominations from all but one group.

"Precious," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Avatar," ranked by number of nominations by the eight groups, round out the top five in the newly expanded field of 10 best picture nominees.

Down at the bottom of the list, with no nods among the eight groups: "The Blind Side," starring acting nominee Sandra Bullock. But just like the whims of the financial markets, you can never count a movie out until the final bell sounds.

-- Brady MacDonald


L.A. Times reviews of the 10 best picture nominees:

* The Hurt Locker
* Up in the Air
* Precious
* Inglourious Basterds
* Avatar
* An Education
* A Serious Man
* Up
* District 9
* The Blind Side

L.A. Times award show coverage:
* Critics' Choice
* Producers Guild
* National Board of Review
* Golden Globes
* Directors Guild
* Writers Guild
* Screen Actors Guild
* American Film Institute

An Oscar field worthy of its own award

February 3, 2010 |  7:00 am

Blindsi With about 24 hours of distance from, and clarity on, the Oscar nominations, it's as refreshing as a glass of lemonade to find that the choices look as diverse and sprightly as they did in the bleary hours of Tuesday morning.

It's not just that nearly every major genre -- the action epic, the coming-of-age love story, the science-fiction saga, the uplifting drama, the dark drama, the cartoon romp and the war movie -- is represented but that the best examples of the form made the cut. That's clear from the triumph of "District 9" over "Star Trek,"  but it's true right on down the line, with "Up," "Precious" and pretty much every nominee with an (inferior) analogue, including "Blind Side" over its less worthy inspirational-sports-movie counterpart, "Invictus."

Some argue that the extra five slots mean little, a chance for the academy to make a naked play for  viewers. But there's something to be said for simply making sure -- in a way that's organic, not name checking -- that films that are executed well get their best picture due regardless of genre, just as the academy (mostly) used to do, before it went all dark and niche and ignored entire categories. And that's exactly what the group did this year. Even those who rolled their eyes at "The Blind Side" were hard-pressed, when pressed, to come up with a convincing alternative.

("The Hangover" is probably the best counterexample. And it's a fun movie. But it's not a perfect comedy even by its own standards, more  anarchic and outrageous. Besides, the academy is always going to adhere a little to tradition, and a story of a spitfire woman fighting an intractable social problem follows in the footsteps of "Erin Brockovich" and other worthy films. You need to look a lot harder to find an Oscar precedent for "The Hangover." Comedies are hard, say its defenders. And they are. But playing hockey is hard too, yet you won't see Alexander Ovechkin making any acceptance speeches at the Kodak.)

It's not fashionable to react to an Oscar announcement with an absence of complaining. Which is why some are intent on keeping the kvetching alive. Most of the movies that round out the bottom five, bray the naysayers, have a snowball's chance in Fiji of actually winning. (That's actually true. The voting system works such that you need a broad consensus of voters, not just die-hards, to capture the top prize, so even if a few hundred academy members are moved to vote for "District 9" as their No. 1 choice, the film won't win.) So why, they say, did the academy even bother?  The race that will unfold in the next few weeks is no different from the race in any previous years between a couple of elite films.

But the fact that the bottom five face long odds only validates that the Oscars are doing something right. No one is saying "The Blind Side" should be singled out as best movie of the year, just that it deserves to take its place among that field.

From the other side, there are also those who want the academy to embrace populism but who complain that this version of populism is misguided. One critic friend noted that the ghosts of "The Dark Knight" and "Wall-E" are angry today, hovering above "The Blind Side," wondering, "This is what we died for?"  But this seems like a clever exercise in selective reasoning. "The Blind Side" may be heartfelt and sincere (i.e., not a typical academy movie), but it's basically a perfect example of the form. Which pretty much echoes what defenders of "The Dark Knight" said -- yes, it's a superhero movie with flying villains and cars that turn into motorcycles (i.e., not a typical academy movie), but it's basically a perfect example of the form. When it comes to including the best movies of the year, a well-done film is a well-done film. You can't pick your populism.

-- Steven Zeitchik

(For full Oscar coverage and commentary, click on my colleague Kenneth Turan's take on the field's diversity, John Horn's piece on the causes and effects of the high-grossing Oscar nominees, Claudia Eller and Ben Fritz reporting on the nominees' attempt at a box-office bounce and Patrick Goldstein on the gauntlet that the Grammys have thrown down to the Oscars.)

Photo: Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron in "The Blind Side." Credit: Warner Bros.

Video: Sizing up the lead actor/actress Oscar nominations

February 2, 2010 | 12:53 pm

Until Tuesday morning, Sandra Bullock had never been nominated for an Oscar. Now, she and Jeff Bridges -- who got his first Oscar nod 38 years ago -- are in the same club: Both could be considered front-runners for their respective roles in "The Blind Side" and "Crazy Heart."

And although Bullock and Bridges are both veterans, the acting Oscar nominations include some  newcomers in Carey Mulligan, who plays a British teenager in "An Education," and Jeremy Renner, who portrays an expert bomb defuser in "The Hurt Locker."

Watch the video for Times film critic Kenneth Turan and writer John Horn, on the scene at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

-- Scott Sandell


Video: Kenneth Turan and John Horn on the Oscar best picture nominees

Video: Who will win the Oscar for best director? And who was overlooked?

Oscar nominee reactions

Panorama: Front row at the Oscar nominations

Oscar nominations announced

Casting 'The Blind Side' actor was a lot harder than it looked

January 20, 2010 |  2:52 pm

Among the many challenges in getting “The Blind Side” made -- a subject tackled in a recent Los Angeles Times piece -- was this not small (literally) issue: finding an actor who could play the part of Michael Oher, the beefy offensive lineman who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.

"OherYou can't exactly call up [Creative Artists Agency] and say send over a 6-foot-5, 350-pound teenager," jokes writer-director John Lee Hancock, who saw lots of teenagers who were tall, but too skinny. "He couldn't look like a basketball player. He has to look like a football player. The other thing is a lot of kids were 'girded for the street' and had a toughness about them,” while there was a gentleness to Oher’s character.

And then there was this problem --  the confident Oher seen in TV interviews today bears no "resemblance to the Michael of the time of this story," Hancock says. 

After a nationwide casting search (financed by Fox, which was initially developing the film), the production team wound up finding Oher's screen alter-ego -- Quinton Aaron in the Bronx, where he had been working as a security guard for such TV shows as "Law & Order." Says Hancock: "Quinton has a real sweetness to his face. He walked in the door and you wanted to hug him. I thought, 'We're going to be OK.'"

-- Rachel Abramowitz

Photo: Michael Oher. Credit: Rob Carr / Associated Press


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...




Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: