The Oscar-nominated documentary Undefeated is about a big hearted football coach who turns a legendarily bad high school football team from North Memphis into a contender for the local championship. In terms of narrative, it owes a great deal to Hoop Dreams, the fantastic basketball documentary that famously wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar it deserved to win in 1995. But while Undefeated explores the truth so beautifully illustrated by Hoop Dreams — that relying on a natural gift for sport as a means out of poverty is at best a slender hope — it is more of a good works film, anxious to uplift in a similar vein to The Blind Side.
It’s ten times less condescending than The Blind Side, but because it’s essentially a portrait of a white guy lending a helping hand to troubled black youth in helmets and pads, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Bill Courtney and Blind’s sassy bundle of goodwill, Leigh Anne Tuohy. Undefeated is well-edited by director Daniel Lindsay and beautifully photographed by his co-director T.J. Martin — the shacks of North Memphis look poetically disheveled as shot from a moving car — but it is telling that the coach emerges as the “star” of this documentary.
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At the film’s onset Courtney, a businessman who owns a hardwood company and has four kids of his own, has served as the volunteer coach of the all-black Manassas Tigers for six years. A former player himself, he’s pudgy, with craggy features (he looks like he could be cousin to Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and might be mistaken for a tough guy if he weren’t so often being kind. Courtney encourages his players, particularly the three highlighted in the film — Chavis, Montrail (a.k.a. “Money”) and O.C. — to find their true selves on the field. “Football reveals character,” he tells his team, along with “the character of a man is not measured in how he handles his wins but what he does with his failures.”
These kinds of homilies are likely necessities for a man coaching kids with rage issues (Chavis is fresh out of the penitentiary), crushing injuries (good student Money is sidelined by a knee injury) and enormous academic challenges (“school has not prepared them for college or anything else,” says another volunteer as O.C. struggles in school). But in 2012, in the aftermath of what can best be called a rocky year for football, the message of football as a revealer of character seems sweetly naïve. That’s not to belittle the usefulness of Courtney’s inspirational speeches for the kids, or the connection between Courtney and his players, highlighted in weepy goodbyes at the end of the season, but I wanted Undefeated, competing against the likes of Pina and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory for the best documentary Oscar, to break out of the realm of predictable, inspirational sports movies. I wanted it blow my mind, to flatten me. Demanding, I know.
You might not think it, but best documentary, which tends to be awarded around the point in the broadcast when television audience at home is groaning over the length of the thing, is typically one of the most controversial Academy Awards. The documentary committee keeps tweaking the way the five nominees are picked — they just did it again — but very often the movies it nominates aren’t in tune with either moviegoers’s or critic’s favorites. Case in point, one of this year’s most buzzed about documentaries, The Interrupters, didn’t make the list of five Oscar nominees. The Interrupters takes an almost agonizingly truthful look at attempts by former gang members to halt youth-violence in Chicago’s African-American communities. Coincidentally, it was directed by Steve James, the filmmaker who directed the neglected Hoop Dreams 18 years ago. Both Undefeated and The Interrupters confront the long term effects of poverty, neglect and chronic violence on primarily black youth of high school age. They’re not exactly apples and oranges, although Undefeated seems more aimed toward uplifting. Is it fair to judge one against the other? Maybe not, but if you follow such things, it’s hard not to, and to think that Undefeated, a good movie, was simply lucky to nab the nomination that eluded a great movie like The Interrupters.
But that’s not to say I didn’t appreciate many aspects of Undefeated, particularly the way it poignantly illuminated Courtney’s motivation. He was raised by a single mom and when he played football himself he watched the other kids walking to their cars with their dads, and felt the brutal absence of his father. “I remember thinking, why isn’t my dad here with me? What do those kids have that I don’t?” he says. “You start feeling like you’re not very valuable. Because you must not be if your own father doesn’t want to spend time with you.” “Fast forward to Manassas,” he adds. “I know some of those kids feel that way. I will never be their father, but I can sure as heck tell them ‘It’s nothing you’ve done.’” You hope they heard him.