This movie about the real-life integration of a Virginia high school football teem teeters on the brink of cliche and stereotype but manages to come down on the side of archetype, thanks to a sure script, solid direction, and another sensational performance by Denzel Washington.
It was not until 1971, seventeen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, that black students came to T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria Virginia. Every other team in that football-loving district was still segregated. But the white T.C. Williams players were confronted with not only a whole new set of black players, but a black coach, Herman Boone (Washington). In a matter of a few weeks, Boone has to make them into a team — and it has to be a winning team, because the school board is looking for any reason to fire him so they can reinstate Coach Yoast (Will Patton), now demoted to assistant.
This is the kind of movie that begins with all the characters attending a funeral under a bright autumn sun and then takes us back to where it all began. This is the kind of movie in which people say things like, “Is this even about football anymore or is it just about you?” and where the supreme bonding moment is when everyone sings Motown songs together. In other words, no surprises here. If everyone hadn’t achieved a sense of brotherhood that transcended race and it hadn’t all turned out pretty well, Disney would not have made a movie about it. But that just leaves us free to enjoy the movie’s appealing characters and special moments. And that’s all right. There is a reason for the classic structure of the sports movie — we like to watch raw recruits learn honor and loyalty out there on the field when it’s done right, and here it is done very nicely.
Washington is, as ever, that rarest of pleasures, equally an actor and a movie star. His power to mesmerize and inspire as a performer works perfectly with his role as a coach who can capture the attention and loyalty of these teen-age boys. Boone is so secure in himself that he can devote all of his energy to the team, so he inspires them by example.
Boone loves football because the football field is the one place where only what is inside the players matters — talent, loyalty, hard work, integrity. He is a man who has faced racism with dignity and self-confidence, not bitterness. He also loves football because it provides a constructive outlet for his emotions. He tells the team that football is “about controlling that anger, harnessing that aggression to achieve perfection.”
Boone takes the boys to a college near Gettysburg for training. It is impossible to say which is the tougher workout for the team — the physical challenges of drills and practices or the emotional challenge of overcoming a lifetime of anger and prejudice. He takes them to the Gettysburg battlefield and tells them that “Fifty thousand men died on this same field fighting the same battle we are still fighting today…If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed.”
But there is another battlefield waiting for them when they get back to school. The team has a number of tough moments on and off the field. So do the coaches. As Boone reminds them, in mythology the titans were even greater than the gods. Like all great coaches, Boone and Yoast teach the team that they have it within themselves to be great as well. And they realize that they get as much from the boys as the boys get from them.
Parents should know that the movie includes racist comments and situations and some locker room insults. A major character is critically injured in a car accident. When the boys refer to a long-haired teammate as a “fruitcake,” he responds by kissing one of them on the mouth. There are some scuffles and threats of more serious violence.
Families who see this movie should talk about the arguments Boone and Yoast have about how to motivate the team. Yoast thinks that Boone is too tough. Boone thinks that Yoast is more protective of the black players than the white players. Ask family members who inspired them to do their best, and how they did it. Notice that Boone may criticize a player’s performance on the field in front of the others, but that he never lets the team know that he is helping one member with his schoolwork. Talk about the way that the boys show respect and affection by insulting each other.
Families might also want to talk about Yoast’s willingness to stay on as assistant coach, despite the blow to his pride, and about why he relinquishes his chance to be in the Hall of Fame.
Parents may want to share their recollections of the civil rights era in light of the players’ experience in not being allowed to eat at a restaurant. The movie focuses on racism, but it also deals with other kinds of prejudice. See if the kids in the family notice the prejudice against the boy with long hair or Boone’s patronizing attitude toward Yoast’s football-loving daughter.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy “Brian’s Song,” the true (and very sad) story of the first racially mixed roommates in the NFL, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo.