Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2012

Undefeated

Filed under: Film,sports — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

As I work my way slowly through the more than 50 dvd’s I received from the studios for NYFCO’s 2011 awards meeting, a pattern emerges. The more a film is hyped, the more I find it lacking. Some I can sit through like “The Artist”, the recipient of NYFCO’s best movie of the year award, mostly out of a morbid sense of curiosity. Others, like “The Descendants”—a close runner-up, get tossed into the garbage can after 15 minutes or so.

Among those received from the major studios, “Undefeated” stood apart as a truly moving experience even though it was not hyped at all. A product of the Weinstein Company, it slipped into local movie theaters today even though it was submitted to us for a 2011 best documentary award.

Just to make sure there is no confusion, this is not the documentary about Sarah Palin with the same name. Instead, it is fairly straightforward account of a high school football team from inner-city Memphis that was traditionally the doormat of the league but managed to vie for the state championship in 2009 against all expectations. When you first start watching it, you will be instantly reminded of the plucky underdog human interest stories found on HBO’s Real Sports show hosted by Bryant Gumbel. It also evokes “Friday Night Lights”, a highly regarded weekly show about high school football on NBC that had its final show last year. Finally, there are similarities with “Blind Side”, the simply awful movie starring Sandra Bullock as a southern housewife who rescues a Black teenager from poverty in a calculated bid to help the home team win a championship. The same sort of thing happens in “Undefeated” but is totally devoid of the kind of paternalism found in “Blind Side”. The primary interest is not winning a championship but tutoring the kid so he can get into college on a football scholarship.

The thing that makes “Undefeated” so powerful is the personalities of the principal figures, starting with the volunteer coach Bill Courtney who looks like a young John Madden, especially around the girth. Courtney is a white southerner who loves football more than anything in the world. While driving to work one day, he noticed some kids on the football field at Manassas High School nearby the lumber yard where he worked as a salesman. After making some inquiries, he found out that they needed a coach and he applied for the job.

I saw the movie in November, at the peak of the anger and disgust over the Penn State pedophilia scandal. As repulsive a figure Joe Paterno was, the film reminded me of why he was also revered by so many football players and students. There is something about the bonds between a coach and young men that can bring out the best of all involved in athletics, even though I never participated in team sports myself and acknowledge the way that amateur sports in the U.S. follows the cash nexus and fosters bad behavior all around.

One scene in particular made this point for me in spades. One of Courtney’s players has tremendous anger issues. He has also just gotten out of jail. After a flare-up with another player on the team at practice, he decides to quit on the spot and begins walking home. Courtney drives up alongside him with two wheels on the sidewalk and two on the street. As the youth glowers in anger and refuses to engage with him, Courtney continues to plead with him about the good of the team and about how playing football will help him deal with other problems in life. It is far more compelling than anything I have ever seen in a movie about sports and a reminder of why documentary beats fiction films on its own turf so often. If you are interested in human drama, why waste time with artificial melodrama of the sort found in “Blind Side”. Ordinary human beings are far more interesting, especially the remarkable kids and adults in “Undefeated”.

“Undefeated” is playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on the Lower East Side and at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square Theater. Trust me, you won’t find a more powerful or a more likable film anywhere in New York right now.

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