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Film

Undefeated

Oscar-winning doc focuses on what it takes to compete when you can’t

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Coach Bill Courtney (center) and lineman O.C. Brown root for a team with plenty of heart but little chance of winning.


Undefeated

Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin

Opens March 16 at the Charles Theatre

This is a documentary about the head coach and some of the players of the 2009 Manassas Tigers high school football team in North Memphis, Tenn., an area shown to us early on in the film as one of crushing poverty, even by Baltimore standards. Bill Courtney, the coach of the team, is a Type-A Heart-Attack man with a wife and kids and a moderately successful lumber business, and he lives in a nice suburban-looking house, and he finds the time to volunteer as the coach of the Tigers, a team so dismal they are paid money by other high schools to play games where they basically serve as practice dummies, but since there is only marginal funding for sports programs at the school, they take the games. One of many small victories for Coach Courtney in this film is successful fundraising for the team so they can avoid playing schools with programs that outclass the Tigers.

A visiting former professional player visits the team to speak, and we learn through a show of hands that most of the players have a family member who has been through the criminal justice system, that most of the players do not have both—if any—parents at home, that most of the players do not have a parent who has been to college. We learn Coach Courtney did not have a father who went to his football games when he was in school. You don’t need a diagram to see Coach Courtney’s motivation, but you will find yourself marveling at how Coach Courtney finds the strength to continue to care about the team with the variety of obstacles thrown in the way of his players as they struggle to show up for practice on a team never known as a winner.

There are several team members the film follows, a mini-spectrum of the challenges a kid in school sports faces: keeping up the grades, the specter of a career-ending injury, and emotional difficulties affecting the will to play. You might stress the fuck out just watching this film and the raw deal some of these kids have, and how this one thing they are part of becomes a way to look through all the adversity they face. How corny is that, right?

The players Montrail “Money” Brown, O.C. Brown, and Chavis Daniels start out as just faces in the huddle, but by the end of the film you will know more than you would imagine about them, and they are equal to any characters you have enjoyed in made-up stories, and you will feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction just having viewed this film, seriously.

There are a few moments of stranger-than-Hollywood here, also, since Coach Courtney is white and the kids on the team are black, and while there’s still way too much Hate to continue to think We The People are Post-Racial as a Nation, some people in some parts of the country really do live in The Future, beyond race, and are demonstrably into encountering people as human beings on a case-by-case basis. Imagine that. You will see it in this film.

We have maybe become so used to outstanding, penetrating documentaries—like this one, but also other ones about all sorts of things—that it’s also possible to, as you sit in the theater, begin to project your movie-jaded thoughts to life beyond the movie and wonder about how everyone in this film will fare, and if you let your mind take you there—imagine for a second, having to worry about all those kids: Will they make it to college? Will they get good jobs? Will they make it out of Memphis if that’s what they want?—that’s a small taste of what Coach Courtney did for years, and he does not have any quit in him, and he put something in the heads of his team, and in us as we watch, to show how important it is to serve something outside of yourself, and how it can make you better, and how you can become a force to perpetuate that idea. There’s pathos in this film, and if you have a heart it will break it a little, but in this movie, the good guys win. Plus, this film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

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