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On Movies: 'Undefeated' is a documentary that scores big

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2012 - It’s 2009, the football season is just beginning, and Manassas High School, in a run-down neighborhood in North Memphis, has not won a playoff game in more than a century. The Tigers are so bad that well-funded teams from the region pay them thousands of dollars to take long bus rides and provide easy victories. The Tigers can use the money -- to buy uniforms and equipment and pay for the upkeep of the meager facilities. The coaches work for 



But, at long last, those losing days are over. At least that’s the message delivered by volunteer head coach Bill Courtney, big and burly and passionate, physically and verbally evoking NFL legends like John Madden or Rex Ryan as he delivers his exhortation before the season’s first game. You can beat these guys, he insists, again and again in a variety of ways, and the excitement in the players’ eyes strongly suggests that they believe what he is saying. They storm out of the locker room, ready to beat the world.

Then comes the opening kickoff. The opposing team runs it back for a touchdown, and you have to wonder, just how much irony did the filmmakers have in mind when they named their documentary “Undefeated?”

Let's just say that the title can be interpreted metaphorically, but the film is clearly about victory, not defeat. “Undefeated,” which won the Academy Award this year as best documentary, is a classic feel-good sports movie that is somehow made even better by the fact that everything in it actually happened. Sometimes, documentarians get lucky, and directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin got lucky, in part because they were willing to spend a year in Memphis shooting more than 500 hours of film to capture what turns out to be an almost magical sports story.

“Undefeated” follows the Manassas Tigers for a year on the field, in the locker room, in class and at home. The documentary, which seems to track the players and coaches almost anywhere they go, and has powerful scenes of bitterness and defeat as well as of growth and victory, is so honest and so revealing that it triumphs over what almost sounds like a Hollywood set-up.

Coach Courtney is white and prosperous – he owns a lumberyard – and all the players are black. Most of them are poor, some desperately so. To compound the potential cliché (Whitey to the rescue!), there is even a poor, parentless black player – an enormous yet extraordinarily quick offensive lineman – who is taken in for a time by a white family to help him prep for his ACT exam so he can go to college with a football scholarship.

That, of course, is reminiscent  of the recent Sandra Bullock movie “The Blind Side.” “The Blind Side” was based on a true story, but it was a Hollywood melodrama. “Undefeated” is a cinema verite documentary, and a superb one. And in this case, at least, truth is stronger than fiction.

Of course, documentaries can be emotionally manipulative, and obviously countless choices were made as the filmmakers pared down 500 hours of footage to a film of 1 hour and 53 minutes, a film with a strong dramatic arc. We get, in capsule, a year of tense moments and fits of anger as well as heartwarming dramatic epiphanies as Courtney tries to get his players to stop thinking of themselves as losers.

Courtney puts his heart and soul into coaching these poor black kids. He is paternalistic from the standpoint that he is a father figure, not because he looks down on his players. He sticks his neck out time and again to save one student whose rage threatens to destroy him. A lot of coaches, and teachers, and school administrators, and policemen, would have given up on this angry young man and abandoned him to a life on the streets.

By all appearances, “Undefeated” is an honest, realistic and unusually deep look into the lives, on and off the field, of a dedicated coach and his team, with the focus on three players who may come from the same background, but are otherwise as different as three young men could be. Courtney’s fervent mission is to mentor his players so they are not afraid to succeed. In the end, he’s just a football coach, but he also seems to be the kind of mentor who can change people’s lives.

Opens Friday April 6