I am always find myself a little perturbed about the nominations for the Best Documentary category for the Oscars. It seems that I always find an excellent documentary that never ends up getting a nomination. For 2010, it was The Tillman Story, and for 2011, it was Buck. It came as a surprise to me and many others that Undefeated grabbed the Oscar on Sunday. I had seen the trailer for the film, and did not know how a documentary about a high school football team managed the win. That was until I saw Undefeated on Tuesday. This is more than just a film about a high school football team. It is a film about courage, heart, and overcoming enormous odds, odds that the majority of us will never experience in our lifetime.
Undefeated centers on the struggling football team at Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tennessee. This part of Memphis became a run-down, poor, and dilapidated after the Firestone plant closed down. With the closure, the people and the jobs left. The people of the town and the students of Manassas are primarily African-American. Manassas High has not won a playoff game in football in its 110 year history. Coach Bill Courtney wants to change that.
Coach Bill Courtney is not employed by the school district at all. He is a volunteer coach who has dedicated six years of his life to teaching varsity football. Bill owns a business that is thriving and has been blessed to make a great living at what he does. He has a wife and four children who often do not get to see Bill during the Manassas football season. I do not believe there are many individuals in the US who would dedicate an enormous amount of their time and money to a struggling football team.
Bill is not only teaching these students about football, but how to be better men. Bill is a guy with a gift for gab. He speaks in a way that commands an audience, and people listen to him. He has some great sayings in the film, but the one saying or life lesson he drills into these young men is about character and how football reveals it.
While the film focuses a lot on Bill Courtney, it also focuses on three young men on the team: O.C. Brown, Montrail “Money” Brown, and Chavis Daniels. These three young men have challenges of their own that include the loss of one or both parents, jail time, anger issues, and the various circumstances that try to prevent these men from reaching their potential. One scene that stood out to me is a shot of one of the boys in their bathroom at home. There is a gaping hole in the ceiling above the shower head. There is even more evidence of what they live like when you get a look at their rooms. Poverty is something known to these guys, not just seen on the TV. Both the coach and the other people in the Memphis community really try to help these guys out. Some go out of their way to make sure they succeed. The story of O.C. Brown, in part, echoes the one told in The Blind Side.
The film at times can be grainy, as it was not shot to resemble those other feature length, high budget films. How the camera is used and what is filmed does show how much time the filmmakers (Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin) spent filming this documentary and following their subjects. When filmmakers can take a story about a poor, struggling, African-American high school football team with a rich, white, volunteer coach and turn it into something that can exude emotion from every single member of the audience, that is what makes this an Oscar-winning film. I experienced tears of joy and sadness with the audience, and there was even applause for things that happened in the film. This is a perfectly crafted film that does deserve the Oscar.
While one might not be excited to Undefeated just based on the subject, trust me, see it. I have never seen so much heart in one group of men ever. The sacrifice and determination that Coach Bill Courtney has cannot be matched by many. The same determination is seen in the young men of the Manassas High School football team. It is not always roses and sunshine. There are hard challenges to overcome for all in the film, but by the end of the film, the reward for doing so is worth it. Guys, bring the women in your life to see Undefeated. They will love it and have tears in their eyes. Girls, bring the guys in your life to see Undefeated. Even the guys will have tears in their eyes. This is a film that is unlike no other documentary that I have seen, and it is most definitely worth seeing on the big screen. Go Tigers!
I give Undefeated 5 “Manassas Tigers” out of 5.
P.S. Stay through the beginning of the credits.