Cuddled on one of the comfiest couches ever, John and I settled in at Ragtag to watch the 2012 Best Documentary Oscar winner Undefeated. The film centers on the football team at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee. The school is one of the poorest sections of the city and is mainly populated by impoverished African-Americans. The football team is typically known as one of the worst programs in the state and has never won a playoff game. In the past several years, the team has done good to even win one game in a season. In one season, however, that all changed. The team suddenly went on an unprecedented winning streak, even making it to the playoffs. The film primarily centered on Coach Bill Courtney and three of the players, Chavis, O.C., and Money.
Courtney is a local business owner who volunteers his time to coach the team. Although he is not paid to coach, he views it as his job and most importantly, his passion. He treats the boys as if they were his own. When one of them does not show up for practice, he follows up with them and figures out why. Courtney says that growing up without a father made him cognizant of how important a male role model can be in a child’s life. Even though he curses at the kids and yells at them when they do something wrong, he also praises them and tells them that he loves them. He’s like one of those perfectly idealized coaches. Think Eric Taylor, but a little bit more gruff.
The three players the film focuses on come from similar backgrounds, naturally. They are all extremely poor and the odds are stacked against them. Chavis, a junior, just returned to the team after spending fifteen months in a youth penitentiary and has severe anger issues. O.C. is an extremely talented football player who wants nothing more than to go to college and get a degree in education so that he can become a coach. Unfortunately, O.C. struggles a lot in school and especially has a hard time getting a good enough score on the ACT that he could be eligible for a football scholarship. Finally, Money is an extremely intelligent young man who is not quite good enough for an academic scholarship, so he needs a football scholarship in order to attend college. After a potentially career-ending injury, Money gets extremely frustrated and almost drops out of school when he feels like all is hopeless.
The film had the potential to be extremely saccharine to the point of eye-rolling. At times, it felt like things turned out too Hollywood, particularly with what happened to Money. There were certainly instances where I felt like things turned out so perfectly that it verged on unbelievable. Everything fell together so well that it felt like the filmmakers were choreographing things in order to evoke the most emotion. While that was certainly true for the editing of the film, the filmmakers did not manipulate the outcomes of the games or the attitude changes in the young men on the team.
At times, I wished the filmmakers focused more on the boys’ home lives and did more to illustrate the ways in which poverty affected them. While they certainly conveyed that the boys were deeply influenced by poverty, I would have preferred more glimpses into their individual households. I did appreciate how they highlighted that athletic scholarships were essentially the boys only chance at getting an education after high school. I also loved that O.C. and Money did not view college as a stop on the way to professional football, which is what I feel so many high school football players consider it to be. In poor communities, too many young boys are told to work hard and become professional football players in order to get out of poverty. Unfortunately, that only happens for a handful of them. Meanwhile, there are all these excellent football players that have very few skills applicable to other jobs. When they asked O.C. what he wanted to study, I was so excited when he had an actual career in mind and did not have delusions of making it to the pros.
High school athletics can be a great tool in order to help kids build a community or family when they might be lacking that sense of unity at home. Sports do promote valuable character traits, like cooperation or sportsmanship. It always saddens me, though, when I see sports treated as an end, rather than a means to an end. There is no denying that some people have the talent to make it in the pros, but that is not a realistic goal for 99% of the people who try for it. To see these boys using sports as a way to further their education and try to break out of the cycle of poverty was so incredibly uplifting. Even though I know coaches like Mr. Courtney are few and far between and not everyone has the Cinderella story that Manassas had that year, it still provided a ray of hope. The face of poverty is overwhelmingly dark and depressing. This film showed that through all the darkness, light sometimes does shine through.