You have to be very careful when you bill something as “the real-life Friday Night Lights“. I don’t just say that because, in more ways than one, Friday Night Lights itself is the “real life Friday Night Lights.” I say it because that series occupies such a vaunted place in some of our hearts that its name cannot/should not be invoked lightly. Which is another way of explaining why I dragged my heels about watching Undefeated as long as I did. Even after it won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2011, even when numerous people insisted it was “the most Mockingbird movie of the past __ years”, even when when it became available for streaming on Netflix this past year, I simply didn’t see how anything could possibly live up to such a description. How could I not bring the sort of expectations to this film that would doom it from the beginning?
Well, consider this post a slice of humble pie, an overdue apology for being so late to the, er, game. In fact, any dauntedness about viewing Undefeated has now been transferred to writing about it, as such is the quality we’re dealing with here. Perhaps you know the story already: a couple of filmmakers from Brooklyn, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, wanted to make a documentary and heard about a high school football player from a very poor black community in Manassas, TN, who had been taken in by a white family “across the tracks” a la The Blindside. They drove down to check it out, met the young man’s (volunteer) coach, Bill Courtney, and realized they had stumbled onto something very special. Over the next nine months they recorded 500+ hours of footage and captured a truly remarkable season of football. Of course–and this is where the FNL comparisons come in–they captured a whole lot more than that. They captured a remarkable season of life. To put things into the parlance of this site, Martin and Lindsay managed to document–expertly–an environment of uncontrived grace in practice, set in a Nazareth to end all Nazareths. Absolute must-see viewing in other words. Doesn’t matter if you like or care about football (or sports!), to paraphrase Tracy Jordan’s response in 30 Rock to Jack Donaghey’s question about whether or not he enjoys the music of Phil Collins, if you’ve got two eyes and a heart, you need to see this film. So stop reading and press play. Seriously. Then, once you’ve collected yourself, head back here for some fish-in-a-barrel commentary.
What makes Undefeated so sobering and hopeful at the same time? So beautiful and true? A few things:
First and most obviously, there’s our new lord and savior, coach Bill Courtney. From the moment he utters the phrase “You think football builds character–it does not. Football reveals character” I was entranced. But he’s so much more than a fount of casual-yet-arrestingly-wise one-liners. He is a shining example of real service and sacrifice. Coach Courtney is a walking-talking beacon of “love for the loveless shown,” a man for whom virtue and desire are miraculously aligned. And yet, it somehow doesn’t make him insufferable or saintly–the opposite in fact! Perhaps this is because his ‘ministry’ so clearly flows from someplace real: his own father-wound (his father left him and his mother when he was very young) and his surpassing love for the game of football. Coach Courtney doesn’t volunteer so tirelessly because he feels he has to, or in order to gain recognition or glory, he does it because he wants to, because he loves it, and his players can tell. (In fact, it comes so naturally that he practically can’t keep from doing so, even when the need to call it quits presents itself). Add to that an uncanny and preternatural grasp of what makes young men tick, truly supernatural patience (talk about 70 times 7!) and the bonafide humility of man who knows the limits of both his influence and abilities–and you have a remarkably potent brew. Bill Courtney is the perfect candidate to be a light in what many of us might see as a hopeless situation. The fact that he would probably disagree with that assessment is just further testament to his character.
The man’s coaching (and let’s face it – his fathering) style is rich enough to fill a theological textbook on the difference between the first and second use of the law, but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say that these kids know that their coach loves them, that he will do anything for them, regardless of their performance on the field. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences to stupid behavior, or that their coach is somehow excited if/when his players act out. He wants to win as much as they do! Yet he understands when a boundary needs be drawn, when a change needs to be made, when a wall has been hit. What’s even more remarkable, though, is that he also understands–with God-given clarity–when demand and exhortation have run their course, when a young man is up against something much larger than himself, and when mercy, in the form of a second/third/fourth/fortieth chance, needs to be extended to someone who is undeserving of it.
The most palpable instance of Coach Courtney’s instinctive genius comes in his dealings with a troubled young man on his team named Chavis. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Chavis is back on the squad after missing a year due to a stint in state facility. It soon becomes apparent that Chavis’ “anger issues” run very, very deep. He instigates fights with his teammates at the slightest provocation, hurls insults/threats left and right, and displays a severe allergy to anything that sounds like an apology or admission of guilt. While Courtney expresses his doubts about Chavis ever straightening out, he also persists, some might say foolishly (and despite all evidence to the contrary), in reaching out to the boy and his family. Other players grumble that any other coach would have long kicked Chavis off the team–why should he get so many chances, after all.
Then, at a key moment in a tight game, Coach Courtney goes out on a limb and puts Chavis, not his best player by any measure, in an important position and Chavis comes through! It’s a miracle, and also the beginning of something new and genuinely good in the young man’s life. A bit later, when Chavis is named game MVP, he gives a speech in which he not only thanks his coach but honors his most discouraged teammate, a player named Money with whom he had gotten into a fistfight a few weeks previous. Everyone is stunned–they’d never heard him utter a grateful word in his life–is this the same kid?! Chavis had experienced a change of heart, at least momentarily, and as such, he did not need to be told to praise his coach in that moment, or to love his enemy. We are witnessing the fruit of grace, and it is organic to say the least.
I won’t give away the most overwhelming instance of ‘one-way love’ in the film–but let’s just say it involves a spontaneous phone call that catches everyone off guard and an extremely lavish gift that is unexpectedly bestowed on someone at their lowest point. If it doesn’t get your waterworks going, I’m not sure I want to know you.
The ending is also pitch-perfect. Dare I say even more profound than that of Friday Night Lights? Spoiler alert: The Manassas Tigers win more games than they ever have, but they do not go undefeated. But while they are disappointed when they eventually lose, they are not discouraged. The season was about a lot more than W’s and L’s after all. If this ending rings true, that’s because it is true. As wonderful as FNL is/was, a (tragically) cynical person could potentially write off the redemptive moments as essentially fictional, or wishful thinking. Not so here. Plus, if the Tigers had ‘won’, the conclusion could have far too easily been drawn that how the coach’s love had all been in the service of winning. His graciousness might be mistaken, in other words, for a superior strategy for achieving a desired outcome, rather than something that exists on its own terms, independent of what it may or may not ‘produce’. We are in the territory of the theology of the cross as opposed to the theology of glory, of course–what we might simply call the territory of truth–and I’d rather not take the focus off the film itself.
Lastly, it should be noted that Undefeated is positively soaked in Christianity of the most ‘authentic’ and vital sort. In fact, you might say that faith is taken for granted in the best possible way, as a backdrop to everything–from coach trying not to swear to the church being the only place the team can meet, etc–unavoidably central but never something that is aggressively pushed to the fore. It doesn’t have to be! Even the (ubiquitous) prayers have remarkably little of the God-Is-On-Our-Side vibe that characterizes so many public prayers in the sports world. There’s nothing showy or insecure about the religion in this film, which makes it that much more compelling and real. And in a world profoundly lacking in credible (or recognizable) portrayals of lived faith on screen, this is no small feat.
All this without mentioning the rare hope this film beams when it comes to 1. race relations in this country or 2. the challenges facing our increasingly large scores of underachieving boys/men/-selves. But alas, my inner Michael Stipe is telling me that I’ve said too much (I haven’t said enough). Go Tigers!