North Memphis looks rough. Its houses are collapsing, its public infrastructure is crumbling, and its prospects on the horizon look like its bringing more of the same. Undefeated says life in North Memphis was not always like this, but once the Firestone plant closed and took the jobs away, this part of the city was forgotten. The residents feel they are not only second class citizens in Tennessee, which focuses more on Nashville in the center and Knoxville in the east, but second class in their own city.
One bright spot is a brand new, state of the art high school; the new home of the Manassas Tigers. Entering Manassas High School, however, is more akin to going through airport security than going to a place to learn. During his first football meeting of the year with his team, Coach Bill Courtney mentions starting players getting shot, jail sentences, and academic suspensions, issues a coach may encounter throughout their entire career, but these are issues he has dealt with in the past two weeks. North Memphis is definitely not Dillon, Texas and the Manassas Tigers resemble nothing of the “Friday Night Lights” Dillon Panthers; this is real life.
Coach Courtney spends the vast majority of his time preaching character, discipline, and respect to a crowd of high school kids who do not seem very interested in receiving those messages. They are more concerned with fighting amongst themselves than focusing on beating the other team on the football field. Instead of studying plays in film sessions or running through football fundamentals, Coach constantly has to break up fights, convince the kids not to drop out of school, and remind them that a man’s character is revealed on the football field.
Incredibly, Coach is a volunteer. He does not get paid to spend grueling hours every day trying to teach football and life lessons to a bunch of kids who usually seem to be tuning him out. He sees something more in them though, much more than they see in themselves. He feels it in his bones that if these kids learn to focus on the team instead of themselves; they will not only win on the football field, but in the classroom, and later on in life. This sounds like a scripted TV show, but it is very real and Coach Courtney is dead serious about it.
One player who visibly understands the Coach’s vision is also the team’s best player, left tackle O.C. Brown. O.C. reminds you of Michael Oher from “The Blind Side.” He is a huge human being but has a quiet, almost meek, personality. He is not strong academically though, and is having trouble getting the minimum score for college scholarship eligibility on the ACT. In one of the stronger scenes in Undefeated, O.C. gets a one-on-one tutor and stays three to four nights a week at a coach’s house because no tutors would ever go see O.C. in his home neighborhood. The filmmaker wisely includes social commentary about why it is always the gifted athletic star that gets so much specific help and never just a regular kid.
There are only two other members of the football team who get noticeable screen time and they are right tackle Montrail ‘Money’ Brown and team troublemaker Chavis Daniels. Money is under-sized for his position but plays with so much intensity that he is a very strong member of the offensive line. He has a 3.8 GPA and has his sights set on becoming a football manager or lawyer because he knows he is far too small for college ball. Chavis has just returned from school from a 15 month leave of absence because he was in juvenile detention. He has an incredibly short fuse and will instigate a fight in a moment’s notice. The back and forth comparisons between Money and Chavis work to the film’s credit. Money gets injured and wonders why he can barely get a second chance on the football field when he sees Chavis still causing trouble on the team even though he is on his 50th chance.
Through the unending and amazingly persistent efforts of Coach Courtney, the Manassas Tigers start winning games and the kids’ conduct both on and off the field are noticeably improved from the film’s opening scenes. I do not know why it is called Undefeated because the Tigers lose their first game of the season before they start their run for the playoffs. There are some very strong scenes though, especially one with Money and some news he receives about his future and a scene between Coach and O.C. as they say goodbye to each other at the end of the season.
Undefeated is a very effective sports documentary but I am surprised it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Its nomination was deserved but it is not consistently strong throughout its entire 113 minute length. However, I encourage all sports fans out there to go see a real football team instead of one created for you with a Hollywood cast; those kids are much more worth your time.