I am not a huge movie person. Over the years, it’s become unappealing for me to sit still for two hours, leaving my worries at the cineplex door and entering into the world the film creates. Because of this, I’ve become very picky with the movies I do see. I make plans, I get excited, I anxiously wait for the room to darken.
When Undefeated was released in theaters a few months back, I was disappointed to find out it wasn’t playing anywhere near home. When it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, my desire to see it grew. Ed Cunningham, one of the film’s producers, is also an ESPN college football analyst, so when I found out that there would be a screening at work, I was giddy.
So today, I saw Undefeated. And laughed. And cried. And left wanting to help people.
The film chronicles a season of football at Manassas High School in North Memphis, and its volunteer coach, Bill Courtney. Specifically, it highlights Courtney’s challenges of motivating and leading his players, both on and off the field. Three players–a star senior offensive lineman, another senior lineman who is undersized but full of heart, and a junior fresh out of 15-month stay in a youth penitentiary–take center stage next to Courtney.
What seems like a documentary about a high school football team in search of its first-ever playoff win, is a deeply moving, inspiring and powerful testament to the power of people and structure. There’s often a cliched importance placed on sports, especially to inner city kids “trying to get out”. This mantra is held by many of the players at Manassas, but Courtney puts football in its place. One of Courtney’s early lines in the film struck me, literally (like, I leaned back in my chair and stared in the screen in awe):
“Football doesn’t build character. Football reveals character.”
He is perfectly aware of the positive impact football can have, but also doesn’t put it on a pedestal. He knows there are more important things, even if his players don’t yet. During one of the most moving scenes (i.e. the part where I sniffled the loudest), is when the troubled junior, Chavis, receives an award, and recognizes the undersized lineman, Money, for his hard work while he’s been out with an ACL injury. Courtney notes that the two most important things to Money – his father (who passed when he was 13) and football – were taken away from him, but he continued to do the right things.
Undefeated is great for so many reasons. It captures raw emotion better than any movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s heartbreakingly real, honest and gripping. It reminds sports fans of all the reasons they love them. It tells compelling human stories throughout for those who aren’t sports fans (which is what I think great sports movies/documentaries should do…they should tell bigger stories).
I’ll leave with a note on the title. Manassas loses its first game of the season, so it doesn’t go undefeated when it comes to wins and losses. But for the team–the players, the coaches, the families–it’s hard to think of the season as anything but victorious. The knowledge gained, the challenges overcome, the leaders developed…the movie captures incredible lows, and concludes on a spectacular high.
Did you see Undefeated? What was your biggest takeaway from the film?