Director : Thomas Carter
Screenplay : Mark Schwahn and John Gatins
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Samuel L. Jackson (Coach Ken Carter), Ashanti (Kyra), Rob Brown (Kenyon Stone), Terrell Byrd (Shay), Denise Dowse (Principal Garrison), Rick Gonzalez (Timo Cruz), Robert Ri'chard (Damien Carter), Antwon Tanner (Worm), Channing Tatum (Jason Lyle)
The Western is usually held up as the genre that best exemplifies the mythological American ideal of the power of the individual to right wrongs, but I would argue that it is the inspirational coach/teacher genre that really drives this message home.
A relatively new dramatic subgenre that emerged in the late 1980s as a feel-good antidote to media stories and films about existential despair in the 'hood, inspirational coach/teacher films are almost always based on a true story (if it they were made up, no one would be able to suspend disbelief) and they position a rugged, but ultimately likable individual as a messiah who leads troubled youth to academic and personal salvation. That person may be a hard-nosed principal wielding a baseball bat and a megaphone (Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me, 1989), a relentlessly dedicated math teacher (Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, 1988), or even a female former Marine (Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, 1996). Regardless of who fills the shoes, the end message is always that troubled youth simply need to be shown the way by a stern, but loving hand.
Coach Carter is the latest entry into this fabled American mythology, and it works as the other films of its ilk do because of the larger-than-life persona of its central character. Samuel L. Jackson brings his cool-swagger and steely eyes to the square role of Ken Carter, a successful, self-made businessman who agrees to take on coaching duties at the inner-city Richmond High School. Carter, a former high school all-American from Richmond (thus he has roots and athletic cred at the school), quickly whips the team into shape with his stern discipline.
But, at the same time, he reaches deeper and not only teaches his players the meaning of respect, but also the importance of education. He takes this to a surprising extreme when he benches the entire team in the middle of an undefeated season when several players don't make their grades. In a world in which professional athletes are blindly revered despite their ostentatious and juvenile behavior, it's certainly refreshing to see a film that celebrates mind over matter and reminds us that student athletes are students first. Jackson sells the idea with an intensity that probably only he could bring to the role, which makes his moments of speechifying not only palatable, but close to electric. The cadences of Jackson's voice have become so familiar at this point that they take on a life of their own, and it's almost as if Jules from Pulp Fiction (1994) has finally stopped walkin' the earth, shaved off his Afro, and settled on dispensing his from-the-heart philosophies about life to high school thugs.
Whenever the film leaves the court, though, it stumbles. Screenwriters Mark Schwahn and John Gatins should be commended for trying to flesh out the players in their outside lives, even if it doesn't really work. The film gives us subplots about the troubles facing a senior named Kenyon (Rob Brown) and his pregnant girlfriend Kyra (pop R&B diva Ashanti in her film debut) and another about Cruz (Rick Gonzalez), the player most likely to leave the team (which he does--twice) and become a gangbanger. However, because there are so many subplots moving at the same time, each is given at best cursory treatment and ends up feeling cliched despite the heartfelt intentions.
As the film has a hefty running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, it seems like some of the subplots could have been shaved, particularly the strangely inert one about Coach Carter's son, Damien (Robert Ri'chard), a freshman who transfers from a posh private school to Richmond just so he can play under his old man. Throughout the film, director Thomas Carter (no relation to the film's subject) cuts away to Damien's forlorn looks, which constantly suggests that the story will develop into some kind of attention crisis in which Damien feels the team is replacing him. Yet, it never comes to that, and instead we are left with fragments that never cohere.
The film's message, though, comes through loud and clear, which is, of course, the ultimate goal--cinema as personal improvement. While it is certainly uplifting in a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of way, Coach Carter's title is telling in the way it plays too deeply into the myth of the powerful individual, thus cutting short the achievements of the community (in this case, the team). We are meant to applaud at the end when we learn how many of the players got scholarships and went to college, but it's hard to escape the subtext that it is really Carter's achievement, not the theirs.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Paramount Pictures