Football. FOOTBALL. FOOOOOOTTBBAAAAALLL!! The inspirational story of how white people save black people (and sometimes Asians and Latinos) through coaching has basically become its own genre. About once every two years, we get a “based on the true story” version of an inner city sports team with a fat old white coach who uses hard work and discipline to true to coax a winning spirit out of players struggling with their grades or homelife. There’s a lot of scenes of someone in a jersey punching a locker and yelling and then some hugging and then a trophy. And people buy into it, lapping it up greedily, because everyone loves an underdog story. Everyone loves to see poor people try and then succeed and win. What elevates directors T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay’s documentary Undefeated above the pack is that it’s not about winning. Having a winning season in football isn’t what coach Bill Courtney cares about for his Manassas Tigers team - he wants them to succeed in life. He knows he can’t save everyone, he knows that winning a football championship won’t make the lives of these poor Tennessee boys any better. He just wants to make them feel like winners. It’d be cynical to dismiss this film outright, because it’s very good, and it’s very real. And yet, it’s difficult not to feel a bit jaded when we see a student taken in by an assistant coach and his family and goggle at their rich white suburban homelife. We’ve seen this playbook before.
Bill Courtney is trying. The Manassas Tigers are the joke of their Tennessee high school division. Richer schools - better funded schools - are constantly kicking the everloving shit out of them. Being on the football team is almost a joke. And so he’s trying to turn that around. Right off the bat, the first game of the season, the team loses. So we know this isn’t going to be about getting the perfect season. Football isn’t going to save lives. While there is the requisite “Boobie Miles” star, most of these kids aren’t getting scholarships. And Martin and Lindsay respect that. Bill Courtney understands that. Undefeated isn’t going to be about a coach saving inner city kids. It’s not Lean on Me or Stand and Deliver either. One season isn’t going unfuck the terrible lives of one football team. One “You Can Do It” speech isn’t going to give people jobs and steady paychecks. If anything, it’s more like Summer School. We didn’t pass, but we goddamn well did better by the end. The message behind Undefeated isn’t that football saves lives. It’s that these kids matter. And that’s a nice message.
But while Undefeated is a hopeful and sweet and touching and inspirational movie, it’s because it’s templated that way. Sure, it’s a documentary, but it’s the difference between Desperate Housewives an d The Real Housewives of (insert awful place here). Which is to say not much difference at all. If not for the success of stories like H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights or the Oscar-recognition for The Blind Side, the football parable wouldn’t be as palatable. Then again, the inspirational sports movie’s been around since Knute Rockne won one for Ronald Reagan. So, sure, the formula’s tried and true, but McDonald’s has served billions for that very reason. So while part of me is hooting and hollering and high-fiving with tears in my eyes right alongside the Tigers, the other part notices how The Weinstein Company has bought distribution and remake rights.