Undefeated (Oscar Winner for Best Documentary 2012)


“Lets see here, starting right guard shot no longer in school. Two players fightin’ right in front of the coach, starting center arrested. For most coaches that would be pretty much a careers worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me.” The opening monologue of head coach Bill Courtney conveys the struggle he, and his team, suffer throughout the entire film as members of the Manassas Tigers high school football team in Memphis, Tennessee. This award winning documentary takes a completely humanistic approach to American Football with a focus on Southern American divides between the haves and the have-nots. Society is critiqued not through deceptive editing or creation of misleading situations but through simply watching this team and coach interact with the outside world on a daily basis. What unfolds is no doubt far beyond what the directors, Daniel Lindsay and T.J.Martin, could ever have hoped to achieve.

With the entire team being African-American and the head-coach being white you can see how this film can reflect the racial differences still very much evident within American society. Although the high-school building itself is new and improved having received essential funding the athletics programme has continuously suffered economically. Their equipment and training facilities are below par in comparison to all the other teams in the district and one of the worst in the entire state. In fact, in order to earn extra finances, coach Bill would hire out his team to more privileged schools where they could have a training match against them during the Summer months and basically take a hiding for money. The area in Memphis where Mannassas high-school is located is a predominantly working-class black community in a run down inner city with derelict houses and no local amenities. Just outside it, however, where the head coach and assistant coach live, both white, is a nice middle to upper class suburb with large houses and private schools. The racial differences are further evident to see with elements of The Blind Side the 2009 American football film starring Sandra Bullock, incorporated into the narrative, as the assistant coach takes the most promising athlete on the team, O.C. Brown, to live with him in order to further his education and ensure he gets that college football scholarship i.e. escape from his existing living conditions.

The team itself has never qualified for the state championships (won their district league) and for many years have lost countless games while winning very few, going some seasons with zero wins and ten losses. Coach Bill started working with them in 2002 when there wasn’t even enough players to fill the squad. Up until the filmed 2009 season the team had still been a disappointment but coach Bill had been doing some player negotiations throughout the previous years convincing local kids who were good at football to go to Manassas and see what they could build. This season was the year in which these same children were seniors and promised to deliver the idealistic goals coach Bill had set them those years before. However, they do not get off to a great start losing their first game comfortably. Situations then begin to unfold within the team due to the integration of a past member, Chavis, who returns from juvenile prison as he creates an uncomfortable and tense working environment for his fellow players and coaches.

Chavis’ struggles, along with another member of the teams, Montrail “Money” Brown, contrast and intertwine with one another making this very much an emotional roller-coaster. Their circumstances reflect the hardship experienced by the people in the community and the help offered to them by “the white man” convey the economic inequalities prevalent in American society. They have to overcome these problems and work as a team which is the moral of the story. Football provides these young men with an outlet, a way out of their lives, even if it is just momentarily. The principles they learn and transformations from adolescents to adults is clear to see and we can only appreciate the work that coach Bill does to achieve this, regardless of racial differences. We end up following these men on a truly inspiring journey which takes many twists and turns.

It always astounds me how relative these american football related films and television shows can be to audiences unfamiliar with the sport itself, myself very much included. Shows like Friday Night Lights and MTV’S Two-A-Days were welcomed with a great reception throughout the British Isles and Ireland due to their addictive story lines and hard-hitting cultural issues in terms of racial tensions, gender politics, teenage anxieties and traditional romantic narratives. Furthermore, films centering around the sport have been rated as some of the greatest movies of all time; Remember the Titans, Jerry Maguire, Varsity Blues, We Are Marshall, and who could leave out Any Given Sunday with Al Pacino making one of the greatest fictional speeches of cinematic history. (Coach Bill Courtney makes equally compelling speeches throughout this film which further add to its uniqueness)

The common element present in all of these is of coarse American Football yet we probably only see five percent of football being played in any of them, so it is pretty evident as to why we can enjoy these the way we do. As far as Undefeated goes, we actually see a significant amount of on-field action but this does not take away from our ability to experience empathy throughout. It is definitely up there with these films in terms of greatness and anyone can enjoy this feature regardless of gender, race, age and social circumstances, which is basically the whole point of the film I’m sure. It is a heart-warming  tale that takes us in many different directions, wavering between entertainment and saddening reality, prideful happiness and empathetic compassion. For both documentary lovers and film lovers alike, this is one to be added to the top of that pile of stuff you intend to watch this year. If it had ex-rapper and Undefeated producer Sean “P-Diddy” Combs admittedly “crying like a baby” then how can it not be good.

My Rating: 9/10

Twitter: @rorytoal

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