This is not Coach Carter. This is not Cool Runnings. This isn’t even The Blind Side. Because though the issues of race, class and tough choices are all recurrent themes in those films, as they are in most films in which black kids make good with nothing but a ball and a mentor, Undefeated is real. These are real people. There’s no Sandra Bullock, no Samuel L. Jackson to save the day; there’s nothing but a ordinary man who goes by the name of Bill Courtney. It’s the unflinching, discomfiting reality that Undefeated never lets you forget for even a second of its 113-minute runtime that show you just how ghetto-football could win an Oscar.
Undefeated is set in North Memphis, in the state of Tennessee, USA. It’s hideous; whatever we think of our towering council blocks, the kind of rural poverty in which the players live is nothing short of horrifying. Walls so engorged with damp and mould that an unidentified liquid drips on Manassas left tackle O.C. Brown’s head while he’s trying to brush his teeth is just the beginning; these kids live in extreme poverty because they spend most of their time trying their hardest to make it to 25 without a drug habit or a criminal record. As such, school comes a distant last in their list of priorities. However, by dangling in front of them the promise of competitive football in exchange for high GPAs, coach Bill Courtney figured he was onto something.
‘Figured’ being the operative word here; the film quickly establishes the stars of the show and the team alike. The Blind Side‘s influence is clear in how the story of 6’3″, 310lbs left tackle O.C. Brown is told – complete with being unusually fast for someone so big, and thus being able to fill the second-most expensive spot on any football team, O.C.’s story is one of the most heartwarming; he’s not smart, but he’s got a heart of gold that enables a wealthy white family to take him in so he can have a tutor. On the other hand, the last thing Montrail ‘Money’ Brown needs is a tutor; with a 3.8 GPA, Money’s an undersized right tackle who might not be able to get a football scholarship because of his size – he can, however, do it the old-fashioned way. And then you’ve got Chavis Daniels. An anger-riddled teenager who crops up in the team having just come out of a 15-month sentence in youth penitentiary, Chavis is everyone’s stereotype of an angry young black man. He’s not sophisticated, verbose or interesting. A lot of the time, he’s not even very nice. His turnaround however, is the most dramatic and poignant in an entire film based on transformations.
Characters like these form the backbone of the failing Manassas Tigers football team; the worst high-school side in the district, so bad that other schools paid them to practice beating them, the plot of Undefeated follows their journey to making their first playoff game in the 110-year history of the school. With a team made up mostly of boys with all the size but none of the heart, Coach Bill Courtney comes on in to give it to them. Courtney is a revelation; though he can come off overbearing and religious, by and large, he is the sort of stalwart defender of his team our multi-billion pound football clubs can’t afford, because shit this good is priceless. These kids drive their coach to the edge and back; you want to hug him when he positively begs the Tigers not to make him “fucking pray for God’s forgiveness for the way I gotta talk to y’all”. He’s got a way of drawing you right into the fray with him – when Chavis stands up to go on for the last quarter of their nail-biting playoff game, and he turns to Courtney and says “I’ll die for you tonight, Coach”, your intake of breath is just as shocked and heartened as his.
It’s simultaneously comforting and disappointing to see that whatever differences between these kids and the sort of kids who used to pay to beat them are being highlighted, that that egotistical bro-homophobia is alive and well – complete with the irony of Chavis flying off the handle about Money touching his arm when he wants to put his face between strange men’s thighs for a living. Despite that, it’s a moment of levity which is perfectly played in the midst of all this bleakness, and it’s not the only one. There’s a beautifully organic scene when a player looks at a scan of his injured knee, which he knows is injured, and asks if it’s his brain. Or O.C.’s surprise at people in the suburbs running in a non police-avoidant sort of fashion. These boys are nothing if not positive; whether or not they always succeed, their desire to make the best of a bad situation is clear throughout.
What would have tipped Undefeated over the edge in our ratings would have been a soundtrack; we’re big music junkies here at BFF, and there have been films on which our opinions have done a total 180 after we got an earful of the music. In the same way the strains of Chariots of Fire in the 1950s running film of the same name makes you well up entirely against your will, or how R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly has you weeping for fucking BUGS BUNNY in Space Jam, a well-placed tune could have really made memories out of what you see on screen. On second thoughts, you’ll cry enough. Man tears though, don’t worry.