Still high on buzz from his work in Crash and Hustle & Flow, Terrence Howard dives into the role of real life swimming teacher Jim Ellis and completely owns the role. That Howard is brilliant is no surprise, the guy’s a proven commodity. The real question here is whether or not Pride is worthy of his performance. Well it tries. It really does.
Jim Ellis is a former swimmer and college grad who stumbles into teaching mostly because the color of his skin prevents him from finding a job that puts his mathematics degree to use. It’s the 70s, and the man is still a pain in the ass. Jim refuses to let himself be held down, and once he finds kids willing to learn from him, the throws himself wholeheartedly into the job of molding young minds. It’s not long before his ragtag gang of street kids is competing against rich white schools, and as you’d expect in a movie like this, they’re winning.
Along the way to success Jim encounters a lot of the usual stumbling blocks. The difference here is that they’re kind of half-hearted obstacles. For instance there’s the local street thug who tries to recruit Jim’s kids into doing his dirty work. When Jim puts a stop to it, the best the neighborhood tough guy can manage is to pee in Jim’s pool. Literally. That’s this bad ass killer’s idea of retribution. Urination. It’s the same with the rest of the film. To get really involved in what Jim and his kids are doing, the movie needs to give them something serious to overcome and doesn’t. The other white schools are kind of standoffish about swimming against black kids, but aside from a single forfeited match, for the most part Ellis’s team is accepted. There’s similar resistance from the usual city council types and a limp-wristed attempt at home family problems with the kids, but it’s all easily solved.
With a story incapable of adding legitimate dramatic tension, Pride is left relying on sports action alone to carry the movie. But this is a swimming, and there’s just nothing exciting about watching the backstroke. First time director Sunu Gonera and cinematographer Matthew Leonetti give it a shot, with cameras above, around, and below the water during competition. It doesn’t help. It’s still just guys flailing around in the water. I’m sure it’s a thrilling sport if you’re competing in it, but don’t expect to see swim meets on ESPN any time soon.
The film is saved, flat out saved by great performances from Terrence Howard and his co-star Bernie Mac. Mac gives a strange, but also strangely endearing performance as the caretaker of the rec center Ellis is assigned too. He’s sweaty, huffing, puffing comedy relief and runs away with most of the best lines in the film. But it’s Howard that’ll blow you out of the water. Howard transforms himself into Ellis, he’s utterly convincing. I’m not just talking about delivery, but physically too. You really buy into the guy a professional swimmer a few years past his medals. More importantly, he’s sympathetic and real. The guy makes mistakes, he falls down, and when he does he uses his own screw ups as a lesson for his kids.
As a sports movie Pride doesn’t quite work, but I’m not sure they could have done it any better. This is based on someone’s life after all, and the only way to amp things up to traditionally acceptable sports tension levels is by adding fiction and fabrication into the script. Pride simply tells Jim Ellis’s story as it is, for better or worse. They get the period right, sell it with some toe-tapping music, and give Terrence Howard room to shine. Ellis’s story isn’t flashy, it’s not exciting, but the film does manage to convey what it is about him that’s so inspiring. Pride made me admire Jim Ellis and everything he’s done for his community. I’m just not in love with the idea of turning his life into a movie.