Film Review – Undefeated

Undefeated

Directed by: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

Starring: Bill Courtney, Chavis Daniels, O.C. Brown, Montrail “Money” Brown

Four and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

It is a good thing that this Oscar-winning documentary about disadvantaged African-American high school football players doesn’t come with a disclaimer that it shares similarities with fellow Oscar winner and cookie cutter weepy The Blind Side (also based on true events) – no one would go see it. Thankfully, there is no Sandra Bullock trying to play it straight as a hoity toity upper class housewife here. What we do have, however, Hollywood could not have written any better.

Undefeated is the story of the Manassas Tigers football team in North Memphis which is on a 110 year play-off losing streak. Year after year, the team is pummeled and humiliated by the opposition. The main source of is limited funding comes from other teams in the district that pay the Tigers to compete then systematically beat them over and over. This documentary follows the 2009 season in which the dedication of volunteer coach Bill Courtney is at its peak, but also threatened by the team of underprivileged and unfocused young adults that make up the Tigers. Not only does he coach them on the field, but off as well, acting as a surrogate father/social worker to keep them on the straight and narrow and offering the only guidance they receive.

We are granted access to the stories of three players that stand out – Chavis, who can snap into explosive violence at the drop of a hat and constantly ends up in trouble with the police, O.C. Brown’s struggle to exceed academically as he does on the field (he even bunks with an upper crust white family for a while – oh, hi there again The Blind Side) and the nail-biting experience Money endures waiting for an injury to heal as he watches the end of the season rapidly approach. They all have different personalities but they all share similar backgrounds – no father,and precious few opportunities to achieve in life.

Bill spends every spare moment, including what should be quality time with his own family, trying to improve the team and lead them to victory. The most fascinating and complex person of the lot, Bill dedicates more time to this sport and his team than he does to his own children, even though he knows what it’s like to miss out on having a Dad around. Not only do his contradictory actions create some of the driving drama in the documentary, but it speaks volumes about the importance society places on competitive sports.

Structured like a drama film, Undefeated is a seriously slick production and at times resembles the kind of scripted inspirational sport film that falls off a Hollywood assembly line. Any cynic would think the involvement of The Weinstein Company would be to blame for this. But its gleaming presentation does not detract from the raw and genuinely moving emotion that is captured and the alternately heartbreaking and uplifting stories that we are privileged to witness unfold. Undefeated towers over any artificial concoction that dare attempt to cover similar territory. And any documentary that brings a tear or two to this hardened reviewer’s eyes is A-ok. Sorry Sandra, this outing was far more deserving of the coveted golden statue.

Undefeated screens as part of the Revelation International Film Festival on July 10.

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