Undefeated | review

Winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated tells the story of a long-suffering volunteer coach who shepherds a team of underperforming high-school football players in a depressed North Memphis suburb through a rough, but ultimately rewarding season.

The coach in question is doughy, grizzled and inspirational family man and entrepeneur Bill Courtney. The team are Manassas, comprised entirely of black kids from largely dispossessed backgrounds. Of the kids, Lindsay and Martin pick three contrasting figures upon which to focus; gentle giant OC, hair-trigger thug Chavis, and sensitive Montrail.

While Courtney comes across as a thoroughly decent guy (with a touching familial tale of his own to tell), the film loses perspective in its frantic attempts to paint him as a saviour. The inescapable (and troubling) feeling persists that Courtney is being actively constructed as a hero at the expense of full, thorough characterisation of his students. This is never more keenly felt than in the egregious moment where he grandly pays a distressed Montrail a visit, and seems to be all but winking at the camera. Later he even tweaks Montrail’s nose. Call me a cynical bastard, but I felt my cringe reflex go into overdrive on more than one occasion; the tang of inauthenticity swilled heavy in my nostrils.

Sadly, Undefeated is never especially gripping because, narrative-wise, it’s all so grimly predictable. Despite an ostensibly un-forecastable real-life setting, there’s a curious anti-tension at work which is a corollary of the directors’ own steadfast subscription to time-honoured generic cliches (conflict to resolution, ignorance to learning, earnest aphorisms about being the best you can be etc…). The recent announcement that Sean “Diddy” Combs will serve as a producer on a Hollywood remake begs the question… why? This is Hollywood stuff already.

Furthermore, while the film is competently shot, only rarely is the bone-crunching intensity of the game really captured. Neither do the filmmakers concede to explain the finer points (or, in fact, any of the points) of the sport, which might help it to connect to a wider audience. Wholly unnecessary subtitles for some students exacerbate the already pretty patronizing tone.

It would take a misanthrope of epic proportions to deny that, on a human level, Undefeated is occasionally moving, and that it may prove inspirational to some viewers. OC, Chavis and Montrail are all clearly interesting characters, and their personalities shine through when they’re not being manipulated by the directors (Chavis in particular is hung out to dry to serve the narrative arc). The dedicated Courtney comes to accept that his own responsibilities as a father cannot co-exist with his time-consuming role of self-appointed father figure to his charges.

Thematically speaking, Undefeated touches on the intrinsic nature of sport to people’s lives, and the inextricable financial links between education and sport that are endemic in the States and anathema to UK audiences. But, if you’ve seen Hoop Dreams (and if you haven’t, why not?), there’s nothing new here. What really sticks is this film’s carefully constructed, and altogether tiresome, drift into “white saviour” narrative territory, as seen in the recent likes of The Blind Side and The Help (which makes it all the more surprising that co-director T.J. Martin is African-American). The black kids’ learning journey is externally imposed and constructed, and the filmmakers’ shy away from any real forensic socio-economic analysis. Undefeated is cliched, watchable and inessential.

Undefeated is in cinemas now.

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