We all love these movies, don’t we? I mean the ones wherein the intrepid teacher challenges inner-city ne’er-do-wells to find newfound self-respect, paint over the graffiti of their lives and just study hard, so that they can pass the big test, graduate and become productive citizens. It’s a modern fairy tale that we’ve seen again and again – so there must be something mythological about societal derelicts standing tall, brushing themselves off and falling in line with the established guidelines for human success, something heroic about the selfless guides who show them the way, and something attractive about placing the aforementioned struggle within the symbiotic mentality of a sports team.
Personally, I’m waiting for the reality television series. Perhaps we can call it “The Biggest Hoosier.”
In the interim, Paramount Pictures offers this flaccid film, wherein Samuel L. Jackson plays the title character – an ex-player who returns to his high school to coach basketball. In an attempt to bring militaristic pride to the group of repetitive losers, he insists that they sign a contract that forces them to maintain a decent GPA. His coaching tactics pay off, but just as the team begins winning he discovers that the majority of them are failing their academics – so he padlocks the gymnasium doors. This move angers the players, their parents, and the townsfolk who had begun to turn out to cheer the successful team, and they turn on Coach Carter before you can say “lay-up.”
All of the elements are here: drugs, gun play, racial tensions, family troubles, the pregnant girlfriend (played passably by Ashanti), and a disparate group that bands together to overcome the odds. The worst offense is the inevitable “study montage” – frankly, watching people work out mathematics is boring, but it’s the checkbox we have to survive to get to the big final statewide match. Too bad we had to stick to the real story, or we might have had a film the didn’t have to sacrifice cinematic formula for historical fact.
Jackson, put bluntly, is the only part of the film worth watching. His trademark sing-song voice punctuates his coaching diatribes with tremendous flair, and you’ll take great pleasure in the punishments he metes out against the players – a sign, by the way, that we’re not really feeling their pain, nor do we particularly care about it. Where “Coach Carter” might have played as a victory for the team, whose hard work enabled them to win both competitively and academically, it plays instead as a biopic – nearly a press release - about Carter himself. But then, one visit to www.coachcarter.com will convince you utterly: even in real life this wasn’t about the boys. It was about press conferences and fame, money and power. Look just under the filmy dew of the plotline, and you can see the stark self-interest of a man who locked out his team to let in the press.