Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Remember the Titans (2000)

Dir. Boaz Yakin
Starring: Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Wood Harris, Ryan Hurst 

Writing about The Blind Side I commented that I must watch a film about American football before the end of the year – and that wasn’t it. Remember the Titans is it. It is the based-on-a-true-story tale of a high school team from Alexandria, Virginia, who went on to win the state championship.

It is therefore similar in plot outline to Best Shot / Hoosiers. We have the new coach with unconventional techniques. We have a ragtag fractious squad inspired to be more than they thought was possible. And we have triumph snatched from defeat with the very last ball of the game. But I am glad to say that Remember the Titans manages to be more than just another cheesy sports movie. It adds another ingredient to the mix. That ingredient – as in Pocahontas and as in The Howards of Virginia – is prejudice.

The Titans are not just one high school team – they are two. In 1971 the school board merged two schools. Or rather ‘integrated’ them. Because there had previously been two schools – one whites only and the other blacks only. Each school had its own American football team. And each team had its own coach. Black Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) is made head of this new team; white coach Yoast (Will Patton) is appointed as his deputy. Together they must find a way to work together and forge a unified team.

"Remember team: scissors cuts paper but rock blunts scissors..."
In this film sport is a means to change society. The opening narration explains that in Virginia everyone is American football-mad. “In Virginia high school football is a way of life. It’s bigger than Christmas Day.” The question really is which they love more – football or racism? They may disapprove of the integration of their schools, but once the Titans start their winning streak the population starts to come around. There is a great contrast shown just on one street. When Boone and his family move in there are twitched curtains and a lot of comments from his neighbours about if you let one in the place will soon be drowning in blacks; when his team qualify for the final they come out on their porches to applaud him. The success of the team has led to social acceptance of blacks. This is shown most clearly when Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) goes to see team captain Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) at his house. They had started as fierce opponents but were the first to see that they needed to play as a team if they were to win. Hatred turned to respect and then turned to friendship: Bertier later refers to Julius as his “brother”. But as Julius walks into an all-white neighbourhood he is clearly on edge. A police car rolls up to him and stops. The window is slowly wound down. The cop looks at Julius. Everyone knows what to expect. But instead the policeman congratulates him on a great game and passes on. The early part of the film has led the audience to expect racism. When it doesn’t happen we all share in the victory.  

Perhaps the biggest challenge is for Coach Yoast. He has gone from being number one to just being an assistant. It becomes clear that as soon as the Titans lose just one match Boone will be sacked and Yoast will take over. The local league even conspire to make that happen with a series of crooked refereeing decisions. It is up to Yoast to decide what position he takes. And he, too, commits to the team even though it means missing out on his former position and on induction in the Hall of Fame. 

It’s a good thing that the film focues on the human elements of the story. Because the sports part is all but incomprehensible. Shots of the scoreboard are too quick to allow unfamiliar viewers (like me) work out what is meant to be displayed. We have to rely on reaction shots and music cues to figure out how the game is going. It appears that jumping on someone is a good thing in Anmerican football. In the last game the Titans are trailing 7-3 with only a minute remaining. This is, apparently, hopeless. But then they do a ‘fake 38 with a back George’ or something and they win the game. Fake 38s with back Georges obviously get you more than one point.  

I have to admit, before watching the film I did not have high hopes. It was about a sport no one outside the US cares about and it came from Disney Pictures. I expected a saccharine underdog-beats-the-world schmaltzfest. And I was proved wrong. Remember the Titans is actually a very engaging watch. Yes, it does go a bit Dinseyfied at times (“Before we reach for hate, always, always, we remember the Titans!”) and it does deliberately pull on the emotional levers, but so what? We are given enough to make us care about the players – Captain Bertier, his foe turned best friend Julius, big fat colourblind Louie Lastik (Ethan Suplee), smart-mouthed Petey (Donald Faison, Turk from Scrubs), the testifying Rev (Craig Kirkwood), the Californian dreamboat Sunshine (Kip Pardue) – even one of the smaller parts played by an instantly recognisable Ryan Gosling from The Ides of March. Boone is not the most-sympathetic character in the film – he is an arrogant tyrant who insists on perfection and refuses to show weakness (“This is no democracy. It is a dictatorship. I am the law.”) Yet we believe in him and we believe in Yoast. The only character I hated was Yoast’s precocious daughter Sheryl, played by Hayden Panettiere of Racing Stripes. I found her insufferable – though not as insufferable as SJ from The Blind Side. I know that the idea of watching a film about American football must be anathema to many people. But I would urge them to put aside their, well, their prejudices and give Remember the Titans a try. It is a lot better than I ever thought it would be. 

What have I learnt about Virginia?
When I tend to think of the Civil Rights struggle in America I tend to think of places like Alabama and Mississippi. This film reminds us that race was an issue in Virginia too. According to the film it was in 1971 that the first schools were forcibly integrated. That school then played an integrated team while every other team in the league was all-white. Even the American football authorities were racist and were not afraid of bending the rules a little to ensure the Titans lost (according to this film anyway). Presumably all-black schools had their own league. (Actually T.C. Williams had been integrated since 1963; their success in the 1971 season came more from two other schools being combined, giving it a larger pool of talent to draw players from). 

Virginia folks are football-mad. We are told that it is like a religion to them – “bigger than Christmas Day” remember? And they are proud that the high school league in Virginia is of a higher calibre to that in North Carolina. 

Can we go there?
Alexandria is just – just – in Virginia across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. You can easily recognise it from the tall Masonic memorial to George Washington (though this is not seen in the film). The school portrayed in the story – T.C. WilliamsHigh School – still exists.

But it won’t look familiar. No filming took place in Virginia. Instead the film was made on location in Georgia. Decatur and Covington stood in for Alexandria. Druid Hills High School in DeKalb County stood in for T.C. Williams; Shamrock Middle School provided the training pitch. Berry College in Mt. Berry was used for the training camp scenes; the players roomed in what are actually girls’ dorms. Their night-time run did not really visit Gettysburg, but it did visit Chickamauga National Park. Decatur Cemetery was used for the funeral scene. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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