Rated: PG. Running time; 1 hour 53 min.
Our content rating(1-10): Violence 4; Language 3 ; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5) 4.5
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
2 Corinthians 5:16
They do not come much better than this story of hard-won inter-racial respect and friendship. Much of the action of the film takes place on the high school football fields of Alexandria, Virginia, but the story’s real battleground is the hearts and souls of the students and parents who come into contact with the city’s first black coach Herman Boone (Denzil Washington). Football had long been king in Alexandria, Virginia, where the citizens religiously supported their high school teams. Coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) over the years had amassed a good record and large following, almost insuring a place in the state’s Football Hall of Fame. But then the schools were forced to integrate, bringing the black and the white high schools together physically, but certainly not spiritually. As part of a deal the school board brought up an outside coach, an African-American coach, from North Carolina and hired him as head coach. It was an arrangement that the white members of the school board must have regarded as temporary merely to placate the militant blacks and certain to end in failure. The city was wracked by pickets, some proclaiming the need for racial justice, others advocating resistance and featuring slogans demeaning to blacks. Alexandria was a tinderbox, ready to ignite, as one character says, “like Watts.”
Into this situation walks Herman Boone, confident that he can fashion a winning team from both the white and the black players. He is taken aback when he learns that he will be the head coach, with the former white head coach working under him, but he goes ahead with his own plans. Coach Yoast had intended to accept an offer to coach elsewhere, but as he saw his supporters and neighbors ready to tear apart their community, he knew that he could not allow that to happen by walking away. He swallows his pride and resentment to stay on as the No. 2 man on the school sports staff. His strongest supporter, his young, football-loving daughter Sheryl, takes a long time to accept the new arrangement. Only the persistent efforts of Herman Boone and the respect for his training methods and great knowledge of the game her win her over at last. To overcome the prejudice and resentment of the white team members and their parents and fellow students demands all the resources and ingenuity that Coach Boone possesses. And, after night riders throw a brick through the window of his home one night, it requires the courage and support of his wife and children as well.
Coach Boone knows that unity is crucial between the white and black players if they are to become a winning team. The keystone to his plan to forge one team from the resentful white and black players is football training camp, a period when the players will be far removed from all the alienating influences of their racially-charged home environment. Boone begins his campaign even before the bus leaves. He faces down the arrogant demands of the white All-American team captain, showing him and players and parents who is in charge; then he divides the boys into offensive and defensive teams, and pairs a black and a white player together, making them sit together on the bus and room together at camp. Not a popular decision with either the black or the white players! Throughout the week, Boone works to breakdown “the dividing wall of hostility,” slowly chipping away at stereotypes and hatreds built up over generations. Slowly the students come round, learning that they must put the team above both their racial and their personal ambitions. We see the battle being hard-won, but what will happen when they return to the racially poisoned city and school?
The answer to this is found in still more hard-fought battles within the souls of the players. Some win the battle, a few do not, allowing themselves to be pulled down into the hatred of racism. Scriptwriter Gregory Allen Howard has done a fine job of taking what could be another sports epic of losers becoming winners (which unfortunately is all that some critics have seen in the film) and filling it with inspiring insights into the nature of prejudice and how to overcome it. A good example of this is Coach Boone’s’ telling the players that he does not expect them to love, or even to like each other, but that he does expect them to respect each other and to give their best on the field in playing together.
The character of a number of the players is well-rounded out: Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) and Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst), initially viewing each other through prejudiced eyes, but then coming to respect each other’s talent and courage, and finally embracing each other in love; Lewis Lastik (Ethan Suplee), the white, massive student who uses humor to break down barriers; and Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass (Kip Pardue), the newcomer son of a white liberal military officer who brings a very different perspective to the racial conflict; and Jerry “The Rev” Harris (Craig Kirkwood) whose piety has earned him his nickname. A fictional character who represents the changing attitude of the white students is Emma Hoyt (Kate Bosworth), Gerry Bertier’s girlfriend, who breaks with him at first over his new friendship with Julius and the other black players. When the team returns from football camp and Gerry tries to introduce his new friend Julius to her, she refuses to accept his handshake. Much later in the season, however, she comes around, just before a big game and, in a lovely act of grace, takes Julius’ hand, wishing him well.
Those looking for a family film or one to take a youth group on an outing to will find ample rewards in this film. Even someone like myself who worry about the macho hype and the arrogant cries of “We’re Number One!” associated with football was swept along by the feeling that something important occurred to the Titans, their families, and the fans during that 1971 season, something that according to scriptwriter Gregory Allen Howard affected the life of the entire city of Alexandria for the good. As Jackie Robinson’s joining the Brooklyn Dodgers helped foster integration at the national level, so the later Titans’ merging of black and white players spread the message of racial harmony through Alexandria. It is ironic that sports was as much, if not more, of a catalyst for the breakdown of segregation in Alexandria, than the churches, despite the latter’s gospel of love and grace.