History has often shown us the power of sports to inflame people’s passions and sway their opinions. Hollywood, of course, wouldn’t miss a chance to cash-in on this fact. One such attempt is Glory Road.
The movie is a good illustration, however, of just how hard it is for movies to do what sports do. They rarely do anything to challenge our views, but rather reinforce our comfort in what we already assume. Ironically, they have a habit of acting as if they are saying something revolutionary. Consider, for instance, the end of Remember the Titans, from Jerry Bruckheimer, also the producer of Glory Road. The end of the film jumps to several years later, at a funeral, when the narrator, Sheryl Yoast, says “They say it can’t work, black and white. But when they do, we remember the Titans.” I found myself wondering “Just who are ‘they’?”
Glory Road sets the same mood as Titans, starting off at about the same time (mid-sixties) when schools, and therefore sports, were generally segregated. Josh Lucas of Secondhand Lions becomes a white Denzel Washington as Texas Western’s head basketball coach. What do you call a white man surrounded by five black men?
Frustrated with the lack of good players who want to play for TW, Lucas’ Don Haskins combs the ghettos and recruits seven black players for the team. This gives rise to the film’s first really cheesy line: “I don’t see color; I see skill and I see quick.” In the predictable spirit of Titans, for the most part, all black schools and black basketball teams seem to disappear, so the unsympathetic characters are all white (although they meet one team with a few black players midway through the movie). They win consistently, until the black players, angry over a graffiti incident, refuse to pass to the white ones, resulting in the season’s only loss. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, Haskins decides to play only black players in the national championship game, and they go on to narrowly beat the all-white Kentucky team. So the question becomes, is Bruckheimer trying to convey the message that he was in Titans that the discipline brought on by working through racial tension builds strength, or is he simply saying that black guys play basketball better than white guys?
Either way, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. It’s never been any secret that competitive basketball became widely black as skill began to show through prejudice, and then became almost exclusively black when television took over and skill took a backseat to image. Ironically, the film has to establish a mentor-student relationship. Consequently, there are a few scenes of Haskins schooling black players on the court.
Let’s look at some of Hollywood’s other efforts to cross-breed sports and race. In 1992, The Mighty Ducks was released. A hot shot attorney (Emilio Estevez) is caught driving drunk and has to do the community service of coaching a washed-up athletic team from a poor district. In the tradition of Hollywood happy endings, he turns the team around completely and they win the league championship. At the championship, they meet the team that haunts Estevez’s memory – his childhood team, sponsored by a wealthy district. The players on this team are all essentially identical to one another, forming a single character more than a team of individuals. The Ducks, conversely, represent a schmorgasboard of cultures and personalities and provide the colorful characters that every movie needs (and that sports teams tend to suppress for unity).
It was no accident, of course, that Disney chose the sport of hockey as a setting for this story. It was the only sport where the “bad” team could be all white with any credibility. Once hockey was used up, Little Giants and The Big Green couldn’t present quite the same hegemony. I always looked forward to a similar movie about basketball. It figures that when one finally came, it would be set in the sixties.
I’ve been around the block enough that I’m comfortable saying a lot of black people will not find Glory Road particularly inspiring. Average black people have often complained that the most athletic members of their culture hog the spotlight, leading their young men away from solid careers in a hopeless bid for stardom.
To round out my perspective I rented another basketball movie, Coach Carter, which addresses exactly that concern. Quite different from Road’s images of grandeur and triumph, Coach Carter ends with crushing defeat – on the court. But the epilogue shows success in much more important areas. Coach Carter is also more fun, because the team has a token white guy.
Here’s an idea for a basketball movie that would follow the standard formula, and would be a lot more fun. Start with a black coach in a ghetto neighborhood. Have him get pegged as an “Oreo,” or otherwise ostracized from the community. So he has to put his team together from neighborhoods outside his own. Naturally, this would involve including some white, Asian, and Hispanic members. Throw a few women onto the team just to shake things up. When his team goes up against a district full of all black, all male teams, no one would expect them to win – but hey, it’s a movie! Now you just need to figure out a way for the fate of the universe to hang on the championship game, and you’re set.
Can a basketball game really change the world? If it does, count on Hollywood to pretend they got there first. Perhaps the line from the Texas Western assistant coach rings true: “This is just proof that knuckle heads come in all shapes, sizes and colors.”
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