I've hung out with a pretty artsy/creative crowd for most of my life, who are generally quite proud of the fact that they have never liked, followed, or participated in sports of any kind. When a major sporting event like the Super Bowl or the World Series comes around, their Facebook feeds reliably fill with snarky remarks about how ridiculous it is that people care so much about something so insignificant.
While I no longer live or die with a team anymore (I grew up a San Francisco 49ers fan during their Montana/Young heyday), this sort of anti-sports sentiment always strikes me as sad. I played soccer and volleyball in school, and while I was nothing close to a "jock" and was never on an ultra-competitive team, I know that sports taught me invaluable lessons in a way that was honest, direct, visceral, and refreshingly unintellectual. And if you've ever gotten caught up watching the closing minutes of a high-stakes match, you know that sports are an unparalleled venue for human drama.
The Oscar-nominated documentary Undefeated portrays this beautifully as it follows a season in the life of the Manassas High School football team of North Memphis, which lies in a predominantly black area that has been devastated by the closure of a nearby Firestone tire factory. Despite a lack of funds and a team beset with serious problems on and off the field, the Manassas Tigers' 2009 season is shaping up to be their best (and possibly last) opportunity to break their 110-year history of never winning a playoff game. But as is true of any great sports story, it really isn't about the final score. Watch the trailer for Undefeated below.
The main subject of Undefeated is coach Bill Courtney, a successful owner of a lumber business who volunteers virtually all of his free time to the football team, whether he's reviewing tape, devising game plans, or making sure players succeed academically and become mature young men. Undefeated focuses on three players who exemplify this, starting with OC, a cuddly, surprisingly fleet 300-pound senior left tackle who is a shoe-in for a football scholarship if he can get his grades up. Montrail (aka Money) is an undersized offensive lineman who overachieves on the field and in the classroom until an injury threatens his season, his academic future, and even his identity. Chavis is an imposing junior with an explosive temper who must learn to weigh the consequences of his actions and channel his anger into taking down opponents.
Courtney is no saint, often swearing at his players and struggling unsuccessfully to control his anger and frustration. However, this is largely a symptom of his unshakeable dedication to his players and his belief that teaching them to take care of one another, think of their team before themselves, never give up, and rise above the low expectations others and circumstances have saddled them with will result in victories on the field and a future off of it, despite the fact that most of the players have had family member in jail and come from broken families that are struggling financially. While Courtney is driving his team to win, he's also teaching them that it's just as important to learn how to lose without allowing their spirits to be crushed. Early on, Courtney says, "You think football builds character. It does not. It reveals character" -- a statement that sums up Courtney's philosophy as well as the film's main theme.
However, since Courtney is white and all of the players are black, describing Undefeated sounds like the most condescending and arguably racist of movie clichés: the white person who comes in to save the poor brown kids and teaches them to be better people, which is the plot of films like 2009's celebrated and derided The Blind Side, 1995's Dangerous Minds, and 2012 Best Picture nominee The Help. Even if based on true events, it's hard not to view those films cynically as attempts to wash away generations of guilt for the horrible treatment minorities have suffered in this country from institutionalized racism that so benefitted the white majority.
But as I said, Courtney is no angel, admitting that the time he dedicates to his players -- many of whom (like OC, Money, and Chavis) are lacking father figures -- is probably an overcompensating reaction to the fact that Courtney's father left the family when he was a child, though he acknowledges that it ironically causes him to neglect his own children. And when the season is over, Courtney seems more bothered by what he didn't achieve, even if the results are an inspiring, touching, often funny real-life drama that will undoubtedly have you crying -- even if you don't like sports.