Friday Night Sidesteps of Complicated Issues of Race and Class

02/15/2012 4:00 AM |

Directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin

Proving that inspirational sports stories are not solely the province of fictional films, Undefeated, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s doc, chronicles a season-in-the-life of an inner-city high school football team as they make an improbable run to the playoffs. Actually, the filmmakers go relatively easy on inspirational excess (a few sentimental touches notwithstanding) and, for all the team’s accomplishments, the Manassas Tigers of impoverished North Memphis don’t achieve the unmitigated triumph promised by the movie’s title, but the formula is well enough in place.

Compelling enough in its behind-the-scenes footage of coach Bill Courtney rallying the troops, Undefeated doesn’t delve deep enough into the lives of the young football players who carry the team, even as it singles out three for special attention. Similarly, the on-field action barely registers; sparse game footage is always supplemented by musical cues and sportscaster voice over, without which we’re not given enough information to follow the arc of any given game.

But more troubling is the problematic relationship between the white middle-class coach and his poor black charges. The film gives Courtney due credit for turning around a beleaguered program and instilling pride in a group of young men who don’t have too much to look forward to in life. But Lindsay and Martin too often portray the coach as a beleaguered Caucasian constantly deflecting the intransigent behavior of his all black team or as a saint-like figure who gives up his own family life to serve as a surrogate father for a bunch of underprivileged teens. In the end, Courtney is free to retire from coaching to the comfort of his lumber business and family, and two of the three players profiled move on to college via scholarship or beneficence, but the fate of the rest of the kids is ignored. Any deeper racial issues—such as criticism leveled at a coach for taking in a star player as a temporary house guest/tutee because of his on-field talent—are summarily dismissed, the better to laud the final moral, if not on-field, victory engineered by Coach Courtney.

Opens February 10