JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Coach Carter (Director: Thomas Carter) - January 8, 2005
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Coach Carter

3.5 3.5
137 min.

Reviewed at the 2005 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Moralizing team-treatment stronger on court than off

“Winning in here is the key to winning out there.”

—Richmond High Oilers head coach Ken Carter

Having the courage of one’s convictions—and acting upon them—is a rare commodity in the world today. Making substantive change is nearly impossible in all manner of endeavour, but perhaps none more difficult than leading impressionable young men in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to a place where they can make informed choices and—too often literally—live to tell their stories.

In Coach Carter, director Thomas Carter (no relation), writers Mark Schwahn and John Gatins have taken the broad details of real-life coach Ken Carter (who, tellingly, was allowed on the set throughout the shooting) as he transformed the worst team in the intercity league to near state champions, producing a film that sizzles on the court, but loses heat in the sub-plots and back-story.

Samuel L. Jackson as Carter—the successful alumnus who reluctantly returns to his alma mater to teach his unwieldy charges that self-respect, hard work and discipline are the keys to success—is superb. His passion is apparent in every scene—particularly when he is forced to offer tough love to his much-improved team when they, collectively, fail to live up to their contractual obligations and score as well in the classroom as in their division. He locks them out of the gym then cancels practices and games until their grades improve.

After much wrangling with parents and the school board (who prefer a winning team over academic improvement) the lockout is democratically ended, but Carter sticks to his principles and resigns. This sets up the film’s finest moment when the coach turns up at the gym to gather his belongings and, with a visage that would be cheered by James Baldwin, lifts up the broken chains that had served to force his charges to think, act and choose. But the subtlety of that wonderful moment was slightly diluted when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s picture slips into the frame as the team’s latest achievement is proclaimed “We got this [chance to play in the state championship].”

Then the film shifts back into high gear as cinematographer Sharon Meir and film editor Peter Berger brilliantly capture the magic, thrills and extraordinary talent of the fear-inspired players, putting their hearts and souls into the game.

The fourteen tracks including Hope,” “About the Game,” and “What Love Can Do,rldquo; musically mirror the action, adding considerably to the frenetic pace and message of possibility through choice.

Unfortunately, the accompanying story-threads tend to bog down the action rather than provide contrast between the games. The unexpected pregnancy of Kyra (Ashanti) is at first embraced by Kenyan (Rob Brown) but is soon mired down in the dichotomy of his chance for a scholarship and her “family first” instincts. A couple of unlikely props: Nike-branded baby shoes and a .99-cent store thong, confused more than confirmed the character of the potential parents. The drug culture story of bad boy Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez, whose wise-ass works best, the redemption somewhat saccharine) learns first-hand that he has more chance of being shot than making it to college. Carter’s family life, where his son Damien (Robert Ri’chard, whose slight physique seems a bit at odds with the towering hulks of his colleagues) abandons an upscale school to play for his dad’s perennial losers, cheered on by a mom (Debbi Morgan) whose character never has the chance to help reveal the inner workings of her husband.

When the final buzzer sounds, everyone discovers that winning isn’t everything, it’s in the doing. Yet that noble theme seems at odds with the closing credits where the “success” of the real-life players is touted only by their academic achievements, but cheered heartily (as were the game sequences) by the first-night audience. This leaves the uncomfortable presumption that the majority of players who weren’t listed failed; thus further enforcing the notion that to get ahead, only jumping through society’s hoops can be considered worthy benchmarks. JWR

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