|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 June 2005|
Because he chose to view the team as students first, players second, he aroused a lot of local anger. But also for the same reason, he was viewed as something of a hero by those who believed in the value of education, even at the high school level. And now there’s a movie about him.
The problem is that his masterstroke—locking the gym—is not an action but a stance, and it’s mighty hard to create a dramatic story out of a situation that not only lacks physical activity, but by its very nature represents a LACK of physical activity. Doesn’t matter if Samuel L. Jackson, as Carter, delivers another of his dynamic, modulated and strong performances—the big deal comes when nobody is doing anything.
This explains, but doesn’t justify, the approach taken by screenwriters Mark Schwahn and John Gatins, because they fall back on one of the standard variations on the Great Teacher movie. Carter arrives at Richmond High and immediately comes into conflict with the basketball team: he wants the mixed-race (but mostly black) group to stop using the word “nigger;” he insists they refer to him, and each other, as “sir;” he insists on more vigorous exercise than they’re used to, and he has them sign that contract. A few of the more promising players immediately walk out, and Carter bids them a firm goodbye.
Director Thomas Carter (presumably no relation) includes some scenes of training and, unusually for a basketball movie, depicts Carter’s various strategies for both offensive and defensive play. He names the various formats after his sisters, or so he says. (In the documentary on the real Carter accompanying the film, we see that he really does have seven sisters.)
But of course the movie can’t stay out there on that polished court all the time, and that’s where it plunges into the routine, and never emerges. Sure, there’s a kid on the team who’s on the verge of becoming a dope dealer, Latino Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez). And sure, there’s a player, Kenyon Stone (Rob Brown) who’s gotten his girlfriend Kyra (Ashanti) pregnant. But come on now, surely there had to have been more interesting stories to tell than these? All this happened in 1999; the real players—some of whom appear in the documentary—must have had stories to tell that are more original and interesting than this standard urban-school junk.
The movie does deal at some length with one of the more interesting players, Carter’s own son Damien (Robert Ri’chard). Carter wanted him to do better than he did, and even though Carter himself had gone to Richmond High, and set several school records in basketball, he’s sent Damien to a private nearby high school with an advanced academic rating. But Damien whips out a rewritten form of the contract: he wants to go to Richmond, be on the team (though he’s a freshman), and be coached by his father. Now this is an interesting idea, and the movie does have some success in viewing this—but the focus instead is on melodrama laden with contrived, familiar developments.
The filmmakers try to increase the drama by leaving out many elements. For example, Richmond High had three basketball teams—freshman, j.v. and varsity. But the movie reduces this to just the varsity team. Also, the players were actually doing okay; the school required a 2.0 average for them to stay on the team, and they had all reached or exceeded that level. It was only Carter’s directive, part of his contract, that they reach 2.3. There must have been tension over this relatively small difference, but the movie takes the approach that most of the players are on the verge of flunking out. It takes real team effort for them to achieve Carter’s goal.
Granted, a team that recognizes itself AS a team is more likely to come out ahead in the long run than one composed of a few star players and a bunch of guys who know they’re all in no better than second place, that they could easily be replaced. But the movie overemphasizes this at the cost of what Carter was really trying to do. Like all great teachers, in movies or out of them, he knew that his major duty was to get his students/team to develop confidence in themselves and to be aware that they have choices in their lives, that they are not certain to follow the paths their parents took.
Through some of Jackson’s better speeches, the movie does dramatize these ideas, but it flubs the point that Carter knew, and wanted his players to know, that however well they do as a team, they should not expect a triumphant season of high school basketball to be the high point of their entire lives. Some of the parents are all too aware that for many kids, that’s exactly what it is, so when Carter shuts down the gym they’re furious at seeing their kids denied this possibility. But Carter stays the course.
But it takes a long time to get to the point of Carter locking down the gymnasium, and the movie fiddles away the rest of the time with teenage romantic melodrama—well played by Ashanti and Brown, but melodrama just the same. Timo Cruz’s flirtation with drugs takes an even more melodramatic turn; director Carter tries to make it seem realistic, but that’s an uphill fight. It does lead to a good scene with Coach Carter and Timo, but it comes at a serious cost in credibility.
The movie makes odd flubs. You hear the name “Richmond” and you think Virginia, right? I wondered through most of the film just where this Richmond was. Not likely to be Virginia, with all those palm trees (which are also not likely to be a feature of the REAL Richmond). But unless you already know, you won’t learn from the film until near the end just where Richmond is—a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge tells us, when nothing else does, that this is the Richmond near Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area.
There’s also a smug quality to the movie, and to the depiction of Coach Carter himself. We’re never once allowed to consider the possibility that his stance may be a mistake—because HE never considers that. We don’t see him arrive at this decision through some soul searching; instead, he just does it as if it were pre-ordained.
One of the extras, for once, is more interesting than the movie: “Coach Carter: The Man Behind the Movie” gives us the soft-spoken Ken Carter and his large family. There are interviews with some of his real players. One of them has an interesting point of view that should have been represented in the movie: he didn’t and doesn’t like Coach Carter, and Carter doesn’t like him—but he still thinks Carter was right, and glad he had him for a coach. That’s so much more promising as dramatic material that it’s amazing no one thought to include it in the story.
There’s also a standard making-of documentary, a music video with Twista Feat and Faith Evans, and the usual kind of deleted scenes that show you clearly why they were deleted. Technically, it’s a slick, professional package with an excellent print with well-saturated colors and top-of-the line sound. The trouble is that despite Samuel L. Jackson, the movie doesn’t work—they chose an event that is inherently undramatic, and found only stereotypical ways to make a story out of Carter’s courageous stance.