Like all sports stories, this is about teamwork, but the team that matters here is Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac who bring such conviction and authenticity to this story of an inner-city Pennsylvania 70’s swim team that you can smell the chlorine and half expect Fat Albert to wander in with Mushmouth.
It helps that there’s a “Soul Train”-style soundtrack featuring Aretha Franklin’s magnificently stirring “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which beautifully overlays the movie’s climax.
Howard plays real-life coach Jim Lewis. In this fictionalized version of his story, Lewis, once a competitive swimmer in college, comes to Philadelphia for an interview at an all-white prep school but is rejected by racist Mr. Bink (Tom Arnold). The only job he can get is packing up an old recreation center that is being closed because no one ever uses it. The man who runs the center is Elston (Bernie Mac), who won’t talk to him.
Lewis uses the pool to lure some of the neighborhood teenagers inside, and soon has them swimming. As they improve, they want to compete. And guess where that first meet is? Yep, Mr. Bink’s Snow White Prep. And don’t be surprised if we run into them again when it’s all on the line and Aretha’s getting ready to bring us home.
Underdog movies work if the movie carries the formula instead of letting the formula do the work. Howard makes Ellis real. His scenes with the young swimmers are so connected and intimate we feel like we are eavesdropping. When he is teaching them swimming techniques, he quietly shows his pleasure in giving them what he has learned. When they laugh off their failure, he less quietly tells them that worse than not having the respect of others is not having respect for themselves.
Howard shows us an Ellis who has conflicts and resolve, confidence and doubt, a man who makes mistakes and pays the price, a man whose dreams for his swimmers reignite his dreams for himself. Set off nicely with Mac’s dry delivery and Kimberly Elise’s sweet steel as the big sister of one of the swimmers who happens handily to be a city councilwoman, Howard’s husky harp of a voice and tender eyes just might get you to jump into the water.
Parents should know that this film depicts incidents of racial bigotry that may be disturbing to some audience members. There are some tense confrontations, including violence. There are references to gangsters, drug dealing, prostitutes, and gangster-related violence and vandalism in the neighborhood, including peeing in the pool. Characters use some strong language, including the n-word, and there is brief crude humor. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of minorities and women who triumph not only over other people’s prejudice, but of their own prejudice fueled by the bigotry around them.
Families who see this movie should talk about the three elements that make up PDR and how they are displayed and relied on at home and school and in the community. Why didn’t Jim Ellis tell the team that they were certain to lose in their first meet? What does it mean to say that you must give respect to get respect?