It’s uncanny how neatly the tried and true conventions of the inspirational sports drama fit into Undefeated, a documentary about an underdog high school football team. This would be the Tigers of North Memphis’ Manassas High School, which, by 2009, had not won a single playoff game in any of the school’s 110 years. Although the subject matter and the people interviewed are quite real, directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin assembled nine months worth of footage into a film that works in exactly the same way as Miracle, Hoosiers, Rudy, The Longshots, or The Blind Side – or a thousand other Hollywood dramatizations in which we actively root for athletic and/or personal victories. I honestly don’t know if this helps the film or hurts it. What I do know is that it will have audiences cheering regardless.
North Memphis was a thriving industrial community until the 1980s, at which point the Firestone tire plant was forced to shut its doors. A series of other factory closures would soon follow; many were demolished, leaving large open fields between smaller buildings that soon fell into disrepair. The once prosperous community became an inner-city slum, rampant with crime and in the depths of poverty. As one Manassas High School teacher says, “North Memphis looks likes New Orleans after the flood. We just never had a flood.” The school itself, which has a predominantly African American student body, is home to a football team that was at one time the worst in the entire state. They generated no income from ticket sales due to a lack in both a booster club and a home field. To earn cash each season, they resorted to charging more experienced county school teams for games. Manassas would earn $3,000 to $4,000 per game – at the expense of being beaten by embarrassingly uneven spreads.
That changed in 2004, when a wealthy white lumber tycoon named Bill Courtney stepped in and volunteered to be the Tigers’ coach. Courtney is a take-charge, no-nonsense type of guy who has loved football ever since he was young. His tough-love approach, which stems from his willingness to step out of his comfort zone and give back to his community, stresses the importance of commitment and character building. At the same time, he makes it a point to assure the players that each and every one of them has value as a player and as a person. The five years he volunteered represented a challenge the likes of which he had never taken on. Many of the players he lost became the victims of their own rotten circumstances. “Starting right guard shot – no longer in school,” he says early in the film. “Starting linebacker shot – no longer in school. Starting center arrested for shooting someone in the face with a BB gun. Most coaches … that would be pretty much a career’s worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me.”
The film closely follows the lives of three Tigers. One is the thoughtful yet physically imposing O.C. Brown, who needed tutoring in order to get his grades up; since no tutor was likely to enter O.C.’s North Memphis neighborhood, he was sent to live part time with a volunteer coach named Mike Ray in an affluent part of town. Another is Montrail “Money” Brown (no relation to O.C.), whose dreams of making something of himself are nearly shattered when he injures his knee and is forced to miss weeks of playing time. The thought of losing football sends him into a depression, at which point he stops coming to school. And then there’s Chavis Davis, who, despite just being released from a juvenile detention center, continues to have issues managing his anger. There are several instances in which he butts heads with Courtney and with his fellow players.
To a lesser degree than I would have preferred, the film also follows Courtney as he tries to balance coaching the Tigers, managing his lumber business, and spending time with his wife and children. He admits that he hasn’t been as attentive to his family as he probably should be, nor has he been as patient with them. The fact of the matter is, he has spent more time with the Tigers than he has with his own children. He then reflects on the fact that he grew up without a father, and bemoans the irony that he’s teaching his team the very life lessons his kids should be taught. One of his sons is on his school’s football team, which gets both him and the audience to wondering.
Mike Flemming from Deadline.com reports that The Weinstein Company, which closed a seven-figure deal for the distribution rights to Undefeated, also won the right to remake it as a studio film. I’m not in the least bit surprised. Here’s one true story that’s practically screaming to be made into a Hollywood sports drama. There’s more to it than the dramatic yet compelling circumstances of the people involved; the featured football games are in and of themselves quite exciting, as are the inspirational postgame speeches. All eventually leads up to the climactic playoff game, although for me, the most satisfying scene of Undefeated is an intimate moment between Courtney and Money during the final practice. To tell you what happens would only ruin its power to register emotionally.
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The Weinstein Company