Undefeated shows a high school coach's empathy
THE DEPRESSING scandals of 2011 showed how much can go wrong in the space between football coaches and young people.
The deeply moving sports documentary "Undefeated" reminds us how much can go right.
It's an uncommonly candid look at a lumberyard owner who volunteers to coach under the Friday night lights at Manassas High in Memphis, turning the team from a perennial punching bag into a winner.
This is no small feat. The program he takes over is barely functional. Its funding comes from wealthy suburban districts that pay Manassas to get the stuffing beat out of it at one-sided away games.
At the start of football year 2009, however, Manassas has an equalizer, a mammoth two-way tackle named O.C. Brown, who could play major college ball if he can keep his grades up. Filmmakers T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay saw his press clippings and went to Memphis thinking they had a documentary "Blind Side" on their hands.
But they found something richer and deeper. They found a team full of compelling personal stories, of a coach with a special genius for helping kids in tough situations, a man with unexpected insight into their problems.
How does Coach Bill Courtney come by his empathy? I won't spoil any of the movie's surprises - it's enough to say that despite obvious socioeconomic differences between the coach and his players, there is a something that unites them.
The coach is white and wealthy, the players are black, and the movie has very little to say about this. It's gotten some blowback from critics who wonder whether the movie should have worked harder to delve into the legacy of "white Southern paternalism."
Well, the coach is definitely white - his players call him Big Daddy Snowflake. And he's definitely Southern. And to say that his actions are paternal is the understatement of the young century.
But there is nothing arrogant, entitled or oppressive in his surrogate-father behavior. Quite the opposite. His interaction with these young men is all about their personal growth. He doesn't demand respect, he earns it. Perhaps because he doesn't demand that his players respect him. Instead, he demands that his players respect each other, and when that finally happens - when the destructive infighting turns into blocking and tackling - it's one of the movie's crowning emotional achievements.
But not the only one. If you can get through this movie dry-eyed, you are made of sterner stuff than I.