As presented in the made-in-Memphis documentary "Undefeated," Manassas High School football player Montrail "Money" Brown is a bright, undersized lineman who keeps a pet turtle in a washtub in the yard of his tiny North Memphis home.
Even before the knee injury that cuts short his athletic career, Brown also is a philosopher. He says turtles remind him of human beings because "they gotta be hard on the outside," but beneath their shells they're soft and sensitive.
Brown could be a movie critic. "Undefeated" — which on Sunday night won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, as most of Memphis probably knows — is a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of almost a year in the life of the playoff-bound Manassas football team that finds the warmth, vulnerability and, yes, love that is sometimes hard for outsiders to see beneath the rough, prickly and damaged exterior of the impoverished North Memphis neighborhood where much of the action takes place. It's a sports film with all the come-from-behind suspense and stand-up-and-cheer appeal one expects from the genre, but with some real-life grit and surprise, and a naked emotionalism that makes it almost a tearjerker for men. (The movie "had me crying like a baby," Sean "Diddy" Combs told The New York Times, explaining why he made a deal with the Weinsten Company to become an after-the-fact "executive producer" of the film.)
"Undefeated" has been described as a sort of accidental companion piece to another Memphis-inspired sports-themed story, the dramatized movie version of "The Blind Side." Both movies depict the mutually fulfilling efforts of well-to-do suburban white people who devote themselves to needy black high school football players. But the glossy fictionalized adaptation of "The Blind Side" infantilized its African-American teenager while canonizing the white do-gooder played by Sandra Bullock; "Undefeated" ensures that both its volunteer suburban coaches and its inner-city students are no better than they ought to be, which, in most cases here, is plenty good enough.
Inspired by a 2009 story in The Commercial Appeal by staff reporter Jason Smith, "Undefeated" is the work of Los Angeles filmmakers Rich Middlemas, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin. (The latter's "F-bomb" during the Oscar broadcast disrupted an otherwise proud moment, and led to the trio being hurried offstage before they got around to thanking Memphis and Manassas.) The three men moved to Memphis and essentially embedded themselves at Manassas for the 2009-2010 football season, with Middlemas acting as producer and Lindsay and Martin as the film's directors/shooters and, later, editors, crafting the 115-minute feature from some 500 hours of footage.
The Commercial Appeal story focused primarily on 315-pound Manassas tackle and top college prospect O.C. Brown, who, in a situation reminiscent of "The Blind Side," was living part time in the 7,000-square-foot Germantown home of white volunteer coach Mike Ray, so Brown could better concentrate on his studies. When the filmmakers arrived at Manassas, however, they found that this situation was just one element of chief volunteer coach Bill Courtney's embrace of the school (motivated in part by the fact that Courtney's Classic American Hardwoods company is located not far from Manassas).
Large and portly, with hair that brushes the back of his collar and a uniform of shorts and sandals or sneakers, Courtney looks like a guy heading to a Jimmy Buffett concert or planning a tailgater at the Ole Miss Grove. His informality, coupled with his apparent sincerity and undeniable intensity, enabled him to connect with the Manassas players when he arrived in 2004 as a volunteer coach, fundraiser, mentor and motivator. In his signature line, Courtney asks his characters: "You think football builds character? It does not. Football reveals character."
Courtney's father left him and his mother when the coach was a young boy, and the film suggests that this is one reason Courtney identifies with the Manassas kids, many of whom also are products of broken homes. At the same time, Courtney is haunted by the realization that the years he's spent at Manassas have kept him away from his own four children.
Fortunately for moviegoers, Courtney is not just sincere and emotional but funny. So are the three students showcased in the film. In addition to Montrail and O.C. Brown (no relation to each other), there's Chavis Daniels, a kid with "serious anger issues" who returns to the team after 15 months in "a youth penitentiary."
Daniels isn't alone in his troubles. At the start of the film, Courtney intones a grim/comic roll call: "Starting right guard — shot, no longer in school. Starting middle linebacker — shot, no longer in school. ... Starting center — arrested for shooting somebody in the face with a BB gun. ... Most coaches, that would be pretty much a career's worth of crap to deal with." But for Courtney, "I think that sums up the last two weeks."
The threat of violence — or at least the awareness of its possibility — is a constant at Manassas, where students enter school through a metal detector. After Manassas' victory over rival Trezevant, the police officers on the field refuse to let the teams shake hands, for fear of some sort of outburst. In the suburbs, O.C. Brown marvels at the many runners; if his North Memphis neighbors were to see him jogging, he says, "They'll think I'm running from the police."
In the suburbs, O.C. Brown marvels at the many joggers; if people saw him doing that in his neighborhood, he says, "They'll think I'm running from the police."
"Undefeated" raises some troubling questions that the film does not address — and that would have turned it into a different movie. One might argue that such feel-good films as "Undefeated" and "The Blind Side" contribute to the notion that private volunteerism can make up for gaps in the social safety net — that these narratives of individual charity give viewers a pass that lets them ignore the roots of the problems that make such interventions necessary. There's some truth to that worry, but "Undefeated" remains an impressive film about some impressive people.
"Undefeated" is exclusively at the Malco Paradiso.