Friday, February 17, 2012


Investing The Blood, Sweat And (Many) Tears Principle

Coach Bill Courtney and O.C. Brown of high school football team the Manassas Tigers of Memphis. 
The Weinstein Company

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, February 17
, 2012

Some may ask why Bill Courtney, who has four children of his own, would suspend valuable family time with them and his wife, and sublimate a lumber business to invest six years in coaching the young men of the worst high school football program in Memphis, and at that, the state of Tennessee.  The answer is simple: he wanted a challenge, wanted to help turn around the fortunes of a struggling team, and prove all the naysayers wrong. 

"Undefeated", a marvelously inspiring and heartfelt documentary in contention for the Oscar this year, shows us the many facets of Manassas and its football team.  Unlike the Oscar-winning drama "The Blind Side" (2009), "Undefeated" gives us a balanced perspective of its cast, telling the stories of the young black men of the Manassas Tigers team in-depth and from their viewpoint, not solely through the eyes of the stereotypically beleaguered, paternalistic white coach-mentor who salves any subconscious guilt he may bear to grapple with and get his troubled charges into shape.  We hear voice overs from the players and coach. 

Filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin chronicle the 2009 season of the Tigers, an unforgettable one in the history of Manassas High School, whose football team had years of failure on its resume.  So bad were they that other local teams paid Manassas for the pleasure of travelling on the road to get their behinds whipped and go back to Manassas with their asses smarting (albeit with a belly full of pizza.) 

Three players' stories dominated the on and off-field activities at Manassas in 2009: O.C. Brown, a preternaturally talented offensive lineman whose weight belies his breakneck speed but whose academic record is poor; Montrail "Money" Brown (no relation), a 3.8 GPA student who lost his father at an early age and faces adversity on the gridiron; and Chavis Daniels, who has serious anger management issues.  Each of these teenagers are key to "Undefeated" (which expanded its U.S. theatrical release today.)  We are gripped and riveted by the outcomes, pained by the setbacks and moved by the players' mettle and courage.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Lindsay's documentary isn't full of the typical fairy tales and bouquets one might expect in a big screen sports story or ESPN television sports special.  "Undefeated" is about winning with character and heart more than it is about victories. 

Inspiring, moving and deeply touching, "Undefeated" captures genuine moments a feature film just couldn't adequately translate even with the world's best actors: the glories of fulfillment, the tragedies of life, the power of faith and the transformation of boys into men.  Unseen hands play a role in the stories we see, and Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Martin show us that people do care, while also glimpsing the skepticism and cynicism some have about why a middle-class white family would take in a black athlete and not a black person who isn't one.  To their credit the filmmakers look at the racial politics and the realities of race in America, putting pertinent questions surrounding the subject on the table if not front and center. 

In some respects however, "Undefeated" does play like a feature film, a "Friday Night Lights", if you will.  Some clichés are evident, but Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Martin surpass them, showing committed black parents, coaches and motivators who care as much and more than Mr. Courtney does.  We find out that Mr. Courtney's life hasn't been the bowl of cherries some viewers might assume; he is fatherless and has guilt not necessarily about the students he coaches but about the quartet of children he leaves behind at home. 

Mr. Courtney learns as many lessons about life as his students do.  We see that he has grown up in many ways.  Mr. Brown (O.C.) is the film's most affable figure, and its most mature, even in trying times.  Each of the team's central players has an infectious personality that could span the Golden Gate Bridge for sheer heart, commitment and passion.  These young men aren't in distress -- or if they are -- don't sit around waiting for the world to save them.  They make their own way, and in doing so get a little push in the process.  In this sense, "Undefeated" and its stories are as American as apple pie.

At all times real and palpable, "Undefeated", which brims with tension on and off the field, is the story of life and the unquenchable qualities of character, leadership and determination.  The film is also a roller coaster ride, providing surprises and twists and turns that make for the crucible of drama.  During "Undefeated" I found myself sometimes shouting at the screen, hoping in vain for some players' attitudes to change.  Above all this documentary will have you cheering and exalting the efforts of the little big-hearted team that could.  Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Martin have accomplished a wonderful Oscar-worthy feat, reminding us that football isn't the ultimate game; life is.

"Undefeated" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some language.  The film contains some occasional subtitles, which I didn't think were necessary, but some will think otherwise.  The film's running time is one hour and 53 minutes. 

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