Oscar-Winning Undefeated Scores a Touchdown
Fresh off its Academy Award win for Best Documentary Feature, Undefeated finally makes its way into general release. The first question that comes to mind is whether the Oscar it was handed back in February was deserved. The second is whether or not that means people will actually pay to see it instead of waiting for it to make the Netflix and Cable TV rounds later this year.
On the first point, while Undefeated wasn’t my favorite doc from last year, I was rather fond of Pina, Buck and the unjustly ignored The Interrupters, it is still an incredibly strong motion picture and any and all accolades that were thrown its way were more than justified. On the second? Well, it’s really hard to say considering documentaries typically don’t bring in the box office dollars. It deserves to be seen, however, and here’s hoping audiences do take the time to give it a chance.
The story of inner-city North Memphis High School football team the Manassas Tigers, the movie takes a look at their 2009 season under volunteer Head Coach Bill Courtney. The owner of a semi-successful lumberyard, he took over the reins of the team in 2004 in hopes of helping the beleaguered and underfunded program rise from the ashes of mediocrity and in the process give these young men a chance to be a part of something special. Knowing that this upcoming season is the Tiger’s best chance to shine, he urges them to put aside their differences and not wallow in the poverty and abuse that has affected so many of them in a litany of profound and upsetting ways, and in the process of doing so become team their fellow students and the community at large can equally rally behind.
But the movie ends up being more than just the inspirational story of one man’s quest to help out those who weren’t given as many breaks in life as he was. Even though it is a documentary and all of this happened there are more than a few moments where the film comes perilously close to resorting to Remember the Titans-like clichés in order to get its points across. But it transcends sports story hokum, directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin cutting to the heart of the matter in order to reveal the intimate truth in a way that is inherently affecting.
The directors don’t linger or try to make some sort of schmaltzy sentimental point over Courtney being White and the majority of his players, especially the ones most closely profiled, being Black. Instead, they show the universality of what it is he’s trying to teach, how race doesn’t bar one from being able to connect with these boys on a fundamental level. He shows them what being a team is all about, gives them the tools to hopefully rise above their situation and make something out of themselves once the season has ended and graduation day has come and gone.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much if the Manassas Tigers do go undefeated. It doesn’t matter whether or not they win their first football playoff game in the school’s storied athletic history. What matters is what Courtney and the youngsters he’s coaching make of themselves, what it is that all of them have learned about growing into adulthood as the school years comes to an end. Undefeated shows what real victory looks like, the scoreboard irrelevant as transforming bad decisions into good ones ends up being far more important than the final tally of wins and losses.
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)