If you are still disillusioned by the end of the NFL season, Undefeated has come in to reinvigorate the gridiron spirit for another week. Its story, however, is sure to carry an impact at least until the start of next season. One not need be a football fan though to appreciate the larger themes of this Oscar-nominated documentary; they only need a heart.
The project’s inception, directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, came from a newspaper clipping about an offensive tackle named O.C. Brown, who was taken under the wings of two volunteer football coaches. It stood out because of some blatant parallels to Michael Oher, another Offensive Lineman made an icon in The Blind Side. That similarity may be the knock on this film, but in a documentary format, Undefeated doesn’t shy away from being candid about racial or socio-economic issues, and refuses to be polished with a buttercup ending. Even its title is somewhat misleading.
What excels this story is Bill Courtney, the head football coach of Manassas High School in North Memphis. The film documents his final year as coach, the 2009 season of a school that hadn’t won a game in ten years, and hadn’t won a playoff game in 110 years. To turn things around for a program that loses kids to shootings, arrests, and fights, Courtney forcefully instills his team-centric values: character, discipline, and commitment- winning mantras that transcend the football field.
“If you think football builds character, it does not,” says Courtney, attempting to change years of cultural impoverishment and negative stigmas with Manassas. “It reveals character.” These words set the rest of the tone for the film, both for the players and for the head coach himself.
Buried beneath his brazened and invested nature is Courtney’s softened paternal instinct, someone toggling between fathering a collective group of black teenagers and his own four children. The filmmakers don’t delve into home life too much however and instead cover the Tiger students’ on-field and in-class struggles- which often times paints more of a domestic picture than if it were actually seen.
The Manassas team is filled with many different attitudes, some volatile, some reserved, but the documentary chooses to feature three players in particular. The first is O.C. Brown, whose 315 pound presence tricks his opponents with his blistering speed, which provides double takes from many college recruiters squinting at the grainy video they receive of him. They also examine his grades, the red-light qualifier to getting a big-time scholarship. The second, is Montrail “Money” Brown, a gentle competitor, whose senior season is shaken significantly in multiple ways. The third is Chavis Daniels, recently released from his 15-month penitentiary stay who must transform his quick temper to fit Coach Courtney’s team first model.
Passing shots of boarded up homes and trash littered alleys set the stage for the crab grass field on which Manassas has become accustomed. Their budget historically comes from getting beaten handily during homecoming games of the bigger, better Tennessee football programs, who in exchange give Manassas a couple thousand dollars.
With over 500 hours of film, edited into just under two hours, Lindsay and Martin approach the documentary style with a sincere openness that builds substantially as the season progresses. If it were a fictional tale, it would be easy to scoff at some of its superficiality, things that feel highly unbelievable in order to fit a Hollywood ending. But the reason documentaries work so well with sports is that their Hollywood endings are actually real. To say Undefeated fits this mold however, would mean that winning is everything, and that Bill Courtney’s values are simply conditional.
No, in this case, the unpredictable nature of Manassas’s football season mimics the futures of its helmeted representatives. Its high school arena encompasses both impassioned responsibility and the still immature, youthful faces of dream-laden jocks.
It seems fitting then, that when the end of the Tiger season is finally reached, coaches and players, like little boys, shed tears in spontaneous bursts. My guess is you may be already letting them flow well before then.