It’s not really a spoiler to say that in the high school football documentary “Undefeated,” the Manassas Tigers lose their first game of the season.
The title may not apply literally, but by the conclusion it’s clear why this Oscar winner for best documentary is not misnamed.
“Undefeated” chronicles one season in the dismal football history of this school in down-and-out North Memphis, Tenn., which went a decade without winning a game.
It’s the kind of school that has metal detectors at the front door. After the local Firestone factory closed, poverty and everything that comes with it consumed the neighborhood.
Then volunteer head coach Bill Courtney came along. A self-made business success who grew up without a father, Courtney decided to give something back to the community by coaching poor, black kids, many of whom come from struggling single-parent homes like he did.
Courtney is white, and he must deal with the race issue in his approach. He must also balance his time with the team and time with his own four kids.
Beyond that, his constant challenge is to make the players believe in themselves, to teach them self-discipline, putting team before self, and the importance of not giving up — something for which Manassas teams have become notorious.
The dream goal for Courtney’s sixth coaching season, now that he’s got them winning games, is to win districts and, for the first time in school history, win a state playoff game.
Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin have a charismatic figure at the heart of their film, and heart is definitely the word to describe Courtney. As you watch him cultivate personal relationships with his players, then leverage those relationships into results, it’s just about impossible to avoid getting emotionally hooked on the fate of the team and several of its members.
The spotlight falls most brightly on three players.
Chavis Daniels, fresh out of a juvenile detention center, has a violent temper that is never far from the surface. He could tear the team apart.
O.C. Brown, a gifted right tackle, wants to play college ball but has trouble with academics. No tutor will go to the part of town where he lives, so he must travel to an assistant coach’s house in affluent Memphis for the extra help. Even so, it’s doubtful he can muster the necessary 16 on his ACT exam.
Montrail “Money” Brown, another tackle, wants to go to college, but without scholarship money he has no way to pay for it.
The movie does a great job of condensing the season while capturing victories and setbacks — great and small. The camera seems to be everywhere when something important happens, which is pretty amazing when you figure the odds.
The focus, rightly, is more off the field than on, and the movie is obviously about much more than football. It’s about making a difference, having heart — and staying undefeated in the face of great adversity.
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