When the critically acclaimed documentary “Hoop Dreams” was denied Oscar consideration in 1995, public outcry forced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to revise its nomination process.
That revision came far too late to help “Hoop Dreams,” which esteemed film critic Roger Ebert once called “the great American documentary,” but it paved the way for similar documentaries that may otherwise have been snubbed or overlooked to receive consideration for the greatest prize in filmmaking.
One such film will be on display when the Oscars are handed out on Sunday night.
At first glance, “Undefeated” could be seen as a cinematic cousin to the drama “The Blind Side,” given that both are about white benefactors using football as a means to help poor black high school students in Memphis rise above their circumstances and make something of their lives.
The difference is that “The Blind Side,” which starred Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning role of Leigh Anne Tuohy, was based on a true story. “Undefeated” is a true story—an unadulterated inside look at coach Bill Courtney and his Manassas Tigers, who, denied the budget and facilities that even average high school football programs take for granted, annually take their lumps.
But for the kindness of Courtney, a businessman who volunteers his time as the Manassas coach, the school might not even have a football program, let alone be able to give hope to the students who play the game. Co-directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin moved to Memphis in 2009 and embedded themselves in the program. Given total access, their camera records drama that Hollywood often tries to duplicate, but seldom comes close.
“Undefeated” is much smaller in scope than “Hoop Dreams.” The former took nine months to film, the latter five years. But “Undefeated” is no less compelling with its focus on four central characters—Courtney; Montrail “Money” Brown, the team’s smallest player but its best student; massive offensive tackle O.C. Brown, who is swamped with scholarship offers but may not earn the required GPA to accept one; and Chavis Daniels, who joins the team after a stint in juvenile detention and struggles with anger management and self-esteem so low he requests the jersey number 0.
Adding to the notoriety of the film is the fact ESPN/ABC college football analyst Ed Cunningham served as one of its producers. Cunningham has forged a successful side gig as a producer of documentaries; his three previous films, “New York Doll,” “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” and “Make Believe,” have all been well-regarded by critics and audiences alike.
Cunningham usually steers clear of sports-themed film projects, but he was drawn to the subject matter. Lindsay and Martin learned about the Manassas football program through an article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal and were convinced the story had the potential to be turned into a documentary.
“['Undefeated'] shows sports for what they should be about in the amateur level, which is learning how to be a better person through effort and failure, correction and criticism, and teamwork,” Cunningham told the Los Angeles Times. “I think that’s why we all aspire to be around sports so much. There’s so much more to it than just the on-field or on-court competition. And that’s what I’m so proud of with this film: You don’t have to be a fan of any sport, football or otherwise, to really engage with this story and the idea of people struggling and finding something in their lives positive and constructive to focus on.”
What’s compelling about “Undefeated” is that the drama inside the Manassas program can be found at schools around the country, including Chattanooga. How many coaches like Bill Courtney go to work every day, sometimes at unpaid positions, just to try and be a positive role model for students who might otherwise lose their way?
The answer: probably not enough.
Courtney was raised in a single-parent home, and he remembers the sting of not having a father around to watch him play high school football. Part of his mission at Manassas was to share his experience with his players.
“I will never be their father,” Courtney said, “but I can sure as heck tell them, ‘It’s nothing you’ve done.’”
As “Undefeated” illustrates so well, Courtney’s mission was largely successful. After the troubled Chavis has returned from a disciplinary suspension, he apologizes to his teammates and trades his number 0 for 35. Before taking the field for a key late-season game, he tells Courtney, “I’ll die for you tonight. I’ll die for you.”
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