Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes, PG-13
Directed by Daniel Lindsay (Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong) and T.J. Martin (On the Rocks, A Day in the Hype of America)
It’s nearly impossible to describe Undefeated without having it sound like the most clichéd of sports underdog movies. It is a documentary feature about a team of black, under-privileged kids in the South who rise up under the guidance of their new white head coach, Bill Courtney. The program hasn’t won a single game in years prior to Coach Courtney’s arrival. In fact, in the school’s 110-year history, the Manassas Tigers have never reached the playoffs.
You can probably guess what happens on the field. It is what happens off of the field that makes Undefeated one of the most powerful and uplifting documentaries of the past several years.
Over some of the more politically-relevant documentaries, Undefeated was named the Best Documentary Feature winner at this year’s Academy Awards. At first glance, it is hard to imagine that a sports documentary could win the top prize. But Undefeated also serves to deliver a competent social and cultural message, and serves as a film that is not just for sports fans.
The film gives us some compelling details as to the social climate in Memphis, Tennessee where the film takes place, and where high school drop-outs outnumber those who graduate. The climate and environment of losing isn’t isolated to the high school, it is a condition that residents of the area have been inflicted with for generations.
Coach Courtney surely had an uphill fight to turn the program around and affect his kids, but like a true leader, he focused on winning one small battle at a time. He introduced the concept of team, and of unity, to children that had little hope prior to his arrival, even when it meant putting his own family to the side for a while.
It sounds silly to say that what the kids learn off of the field informs how they play on the field. These are life lessons being taught, not X’s and O’s. I know, you’ve seen this story a million times. Except really, you haven’t seen it done this well, and as a documentary, it becomes much more powerful.
If Undefeated is an example of underdog banality, than it is the one of the most impressive clichéd longshot stories ever put to film. The poster says “character will be revealed,” and it is. What is also revealed by witnessing the Manassas Tigers’ journey is the power of the human spirit, and a determination to win at life, as boring and tired as those themes may sound.
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