Director : s Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Given the manner in which it so seamlessly incorporates virtually every tearjerker sports movie cliché imaginable, cynics will be forgiven if they mistake Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar-winning Undefeated as yet another scripted film produced in faux-documentary style. Yet, it is a genuine—and moving—documentary, shot at Manassas High School in north Memphis, Tennessee, during the 2009–2010 football season. Located in a blighted neighborhood that has been crumbling under economic decay since the evacuation of industry years earlier, Manassas had been the butt of state football jokes for decades, going winless season after season with barely enough kids to fill out a roster and not enough money to buy equipment and uniforms.
The team has since become the personal mission of Bill Courtney, a white businessman who loves coaching more than just about anything else in life and has dedicated six years of it to bringing the Manassas football program out of the gutter—entirely on his own time and dime. A volunteer coach, Courtney (who looks like a heavier Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the kind of outsized personality that documentarians love, and because he is so genuine, so earnest, so downright honest in his bearish commitment to the team and the hard-scrabble kids on it, the film is able to bulldoze past the inevitable protestations that it is yet another condescending story about down-and-out African Americans and their white savior. Bill Courtney is white and the kids he coaches are black, but Lindsay and Martin seem intent on not making race the core theme, but without appearing to simply gloss over it. Race is an issue, and it crops up from time to time, especially when one of Courtney’s assistant coaches allows a player to live with his family and receive tutoring to raise his grades on his college-entrance exam. Echoes of The Blind Side (2009) arise and are then set aside in favor of a more interpersonal approach—emphasized by the tight, intimate close-ups throughout—that highlights the importance of Courtney’s mentoring and what he shares with his players (namely being the product of a single mother whose father left when he was a child). If the film has a central theme, it is the importance of fundamental human connection; football is just the means by which that connection is made.
While there are probably dozens of potential narratives in the 500 hours of footage Lindsay and Martin shot, they opt to focus on three players of decidedly different temperaments. On one end we have Chavis Daniels, a hot-tempered linebacker who rejoins the team as a junior after doing a 15-month stint in a juvenile prison. He immediately causes friction, fighting with his teammates and Courtney, thus threatening whatever unity has been developed. In the middle we have O.C. Brown, an enormous offensive lineman who is being heavily recruited by colleges, but may not be able to pass the entrance exams needed to secure a scholarship. And at the other end of the spectrum we have Montrail “Money” Brown, a sensitive and undersized right tackle who compares himself and others around him to his pet turtle: hard on the outside, but soft and vulnerable within. Sensitive Money appears to be the exact opposite of fiery Chavis, although they essentially switch places midway through the season when Money is dealt a potentially season-ending injury that makes him feel alienated and alone.
These three subplots are interwoven against the current football season in which the team’s goal is to win one playoff game, which would be the first time in school history. Lindsay and Martin structure the narrative like a traditional sports drama, with each game presented as a mini-lesson in tenacity and character. There are so many come-from-behind victories that the film would be lambasted for being overly calculated if it weren’t a documentary. Of course, Lindsay and Martin had no idea what would happen that season when they started rolling camera, and it was simply their good fortune (and the team’s) that it turned out to be such a remarkable season, albeit not an “undefeated” one as the title implies.
As Courtney tells the team over and over again, character is defined by what someone does in the face of defeat, not victory, and the players for Manassas have faced more than their fair share on the field, but especially off. There is a striking contrast midway through the film when the cameras leave the ghetto around the high school and show us the wealthy, well-manicured streets of the neighborhoods where Courtney and his volunteer assistant coaches live, which reminds us just as sharp the disparity is. Yet, Courtney’s genuine dedication to the team—not just winning football games, but molding young men who can move on to bigger and better things—is extraordinarily moving and carries the film. Undefeated is not without its deficiencies, particularly the way its gives short shrift to the incredible burden that Courtney’s coaching puts on his own family, but it is still a remarkable documentary about the power of commitment and resolve.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Weinstein Co.