A Caucasian, volunteer football coach with the patience of a saint mentors inner-city African Americans from a run-down, dirt-poor North Memphis high school, turning their program from a perennial dog to a state-champion contender. Cast Denzel Washington or Billy Bob Thornton in the exact same story and we’d all be rolling our eyes at the sheer audacity of the obvious cliché count. You won’t judge Undefeated the same way, however, because everything described above actually happens. And it is inspirational.
Just in time for the Academy Awards, which will be televised on Feb. 26, The Weinstein Company gets Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar-nominated documentary Undefeated into theaters so audiences can judge for themselves if the underdog sports drama deserves its nomination (and possible win).
I certainly believe it’s justified. Working within the predestined confines of the down-but-never-out sports-movie template, Undefeated tracks a bulldog coach who drills his players on the values of putting the team ahead of their individual issues. He lectures them on heart, on character. He helps boys become men under difficult circumstances. And every once in a while, they play football.
The sport isn’t top dog at Manassas High in West Tennessee. In fact, the school’s woeful program hasn’t won a single playoff game since Manassas was founded in 1899. Coach Bill Courtney challenges his seniors to a goal: Buy into his system, and he’ll deliver them that elusive playoff win.
So many obstacles come from the socio- and economic pressures from the outside world. O.C. Brown, a bear of a right tackle who has troubles in the classroom, is taken in by Coach Courtney so he can be tutored, and we sigh as Undefeated unfortunately mirrors the heavy-handed The Blind Side. Then, after one game, police officers must stand at midfield and prevent the teams from shaking hands, for fear of a riot. That’s terrifying.
But a few hurdles exist on the team itself. The focus of Undefeated eventually becomes Chavis Daniels, a junior returning to the team after a stint in juvenile detention. He gives Courtney his greatest challenges by fighting with teammates, coaches … anyone within striking distance. Courtney won’t give up on this troubled kid, a physical beast with equally massive personal issues. It’s in those interactions with his toughest protégé that you realize you likely couldn’t do what Courtney does, and probably wouldn’t even try.
Do they go undefeated? No, and that’s not a spoiler alert because, as Courtney might agree, stats don’t matter. These guys win a few games on the field, but learn invaluable lessons pertaining to character off of it. And that, I know he’d agree, is a win.
Undefeated is an emotional ride. But in addition to the universal human elements, which alone are worth the price of admission, Undefeated’s just a well-made sports drama. Lindsay and Martin compile impressive in-game sports photography that rivals ESPN or FOX Sports. Their tight editing ramps up the on-field tension, and the rhythmic soundtrack of soul and urban dance tracks weave the fiber of North Memphis into Lindsay and Martin’s footage. Sports fans will be swept up in the team’s progress. Non-sports fans will buy into the struggles these kids face in school and at home.
In that regard, Undefeated can be viewed as a full season of the now-defunct Friday Night Lights. And for fans of that program, news doesn’t get much better.