If you think playing sports automatically makes you a better person, high school football coach Bill Courtney would like to dispel that notion for you. “You might be one of those people who think playing football builds character,” he says in the documentary “Undefeated.”
“It does not. It reveals character.”
That theme comes up time and again in the gritty and inspiring film from T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, which follows a season for the Manassas High School football team in North Memphis. It’s not that the players, largely poor African-American teens with the odds stacked against them, learn how to overcome obstacles while on the field. It’s that they see that they already possess that strength within them.
And the obstacles are everywhere. Manassas is in a forgotten, impoverished neighborhood where crime is on the rise; the film opens with Courtney drily reciting all the shootings and other crimes involving his players in recent weeks.
Perhaps related to that, the Manassas Tigers are a terrible football team, never having won a playoff game in the school’s 110-year history. Things have gotten so bad that other teams have paid the Tigers thousands of dollars for the privilege of beating them at Homecoming.
But that starts to change in 2004, when Courtney, a lumber salesman, volunteers to coach the team. “Undefeated” chronicles the 2009 season, when some of the best players Courtney has molded are seniors, with their last, best chance at a winning season.
The players are fascinating individuals; one, Chavis Daniels, is a hot-headed star linebacker with anger-management issues who was just released from a 15-month jail sentence for unrevealed charges. Another, O.C. Brown, is a good-hearted but academically poor student struggling to graduate.
Where the season takes them, and the entire team, is a satisfying mix of sports-movie uplift and heartbreaking realism. Life isn’t fair; sometimes it breaks your way, and sometimes it breaks against you, and the team encounters plenty of both along the way.
Courtney is a magnetic character, his good-’ol-boy demeanor concealing a sly sarcastic wit and a deep understanding of what his players are going through. He both embodies all the qualities of a great movie coach and transcends them.
“Undefeated” won the Oscar for Best Documentary this year in a bit of an upset, which was perhaps fitting for a film about an undervalued football team.
But after you see it, right through to the teary-eyed uplifting finale, you’ll think it was the odds-on favorite.