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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Movie Review - Undefeated

I am amazed at the number of excellent documentaries available today, particularly ones that are as entertaining as a stellar Hollywood film. Most recently, my husband and I discovered a jewel at Redbox, entitled Undefeated, which won the 2012 Oscar for best documentary feature. We were enthralled with the true story of Coach Bill Courtney from Memphis, Tennessee, whose mission is to coach a group of ragtag inner-city kids from Manassas High School to success.

The year is 2009 and Courtney, bearing a strong resemblance to Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a loud-mouthed, potbellied, freckled-faced Ole Miss graduate who loves football. He is white and affluent, but every one of his high school players is African American from an impoverished area where sports is a potential golden ticket to a better life. Courtney is married with four children, runs a successful business, but every free moment is spent volunteer coaching his team to a possible state playoff game, something that has alluded the school since its inception in 1899. He sacrifices the pleasures of life with his own family to serve his players, and he does it with drive, passion, and joy.

The odds are stacked against Courtney and the frustration level is high, but this only makes him work that much harder. More mentor than coach, he teaches these young boys what it means to be a man and “dig in,” work hard, and persevere when life’s obstacles seem insurmountable. It is clear his commitment comes from his own broken childhood of having a father leave him at the age of four. His heart is swollen with compassion for these kids who have grown up with similar disappointments and rejections. Most of them are fatherless, like Courtney, being raised by a single mom or grandmother, most have at least one relative who served time in prison, and most have no means of attending college upon graduation, short of receiving an athletic scholarship.

Courtney’s compassion in no way diminishes his aggressiveness in motivating his players. Time is spent checking up on grades, monitoring unruly behavior, breaking up fights, guarding against truancy, and maintaining order. And he does it loudly and forcefully, as one would expect a good coach to do, complete with glistening eyes that reveal a river of love flowing underneath the harshness. He is a Christian man, one of God’s heroes, even though a few curse words leak out every now and again (to which he laments that he will need to go home and pray for forgiveness). He is on a mission to serve, and his story is remarkable.

The three stars of the story are Chavis, a hot-headed delinquent with a penchant for violent rages, OC Brown, who is blessed with physical prowess and skill, and my favorite, Montrial aka “Money,” who is sweet and intelligent with a big heart. The viewer feels the greatest connection with Money, as does Courtney in my opinion, because his story is particularly heartbreaking. His father was killed at a young age, he is bright but has no means of paying for college, and a torn leg tendon midway through the season keeps him sidelined from playing. We watch Money go through the emotions of realizing his dream of a football scholarship is forever crushed, leaving a future that seems very bleak. I shed tears along with him at the unfairness of life.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

But fortunately for Money, Courtney’s tirades emphasizing character, “manning up,” doing the right thing when the wrong thing seems easier, never quitting, and staying focused and vigilant pay off tremendous dividends. In a stroke of fortune, an anonymous benefactor learns of Money’s story and agrees to fund a four year scholarship to the college of his choice. To Money and Courtney, this gift is as wonderful as hitting the Powerball lottery;  when Courtney gives him the news, the emotional reaction sent my husband and me grabbing for the hankies! It is a powerful cinematic moment that many Hollywood filmmakers long to capture in their films.

As for Chavis and OC, they both find success, like Money. Chavis wins the team’s “Uncommon Man” award, which he dedicates to Money in a touching speech, and later becomes captain of the defense his senior year. OC is picked to play football for Southern Miss, expressing his desire to be a coach like Courtney—a tremendous honor for a simple man who is now a national hero. Courtney’s book, Against the Grain, is destined to be a bestseller, his business has grown into a multi-million dollar company, and a Hollywood rendition of this documentary is in the making.

The film builds to the playoffs, where Courtney achieves his goal of taking the team to its first game. They perform well but tragically lose by one point, ending Courtney’s six year run at Manassas. He makes the hard decision of spending more time with his own children, in particular coaching his little boy’s football team, lest he continue the cycle of  paternal rejection. The emotions displayed on the field after that final playoff game are gripping. It is a lesson to us all that miracles can happen in others’ lives if we are willing to give of our time and passions.

The filmmakers, Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, have done an excellent job telling a compelling story about the power of love and commitment. I watched it a second time before writing this review and cried the same tears. If there were more men like Bill Courtney, our country would be in much better shape!

Undefeated is on Netflix streaming now. Watch it and enjoy!

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