There is one verb that athletic coaches employ more than kick, run, hit or dive. It refers to stirring emotions, encouraging greatness, or motivating success. That one simple word that gets the blood pumping and instills a belief to accomplish anything– inspire. Thankfully that’s what Samuel L. Jackson’s latest film, Coach Carter, triumphs in doing.
Based on a recent ESPN story, Coach Carter is about courage and conviction and features Jackson as real-life coach Ken Carter. Richmond High School’s long time boys’ basketball coach is retiring and Carter has been asked to takeover. Carter once made a name for himself as a student at the school, holding a number of his old team’s records. However that was 1972 and Richmond has seen better days, having a reputation as being the worst school in the district and losing its prior academic standing. Now, the most important desire of the school principal and the school community is to have a winning basketball team.
Coach Carter of course would love to helm a winning team, but his wishes are a bit more significant than fetching a worthy trophy or two. Carter demands respect from his players and encourages them to show that same respect to each other, beginning from Day 1 in practice. His coaching agenda consists of a series of policies requiring proper behavior and academic accomplishment. The requirements include holding a solid 2.3 or better grade point average and the game-day coat-and-tie dress code. All who wish to follow can sign the contract, and those who don’t know where the door leads them. Those who stay soon find that Carter is indeed not joking; Carter puts the team through a militant style workout that favors discipline and ensures long-term survival against tough opponents. The team starts winning and is looking at an impressive undefeated season.
However, the winning attitude isn’t carrying over into the classroom, and a surprised Carter acts accordingly to ensure that his team is studying and enduring in the classroom by locking the gym. Without question Carter was soon caught in a web of controversy and received both high praise and unwavering criticism across the country for the measures he took to sacrifice winning in order to let students succeed. Coach Carter is a moving story that centers on what took place around the controversy.
It might be said that the act of exhibiting determined coaches in Hollywood movies seems a bit too familiar, no matter how dignified the intentions of the movie director. Without doubt, Coach Carter does echo some moments of Hoosiers (1986) and societal themes of Friday Night Lights and maybe the same heartfelt wake-up call of an invaluable film like 1989’s Lean on Me. However, director Tom Carter (Save The Last Dance, 2001) does know a thing or two about life and basketball (he directed the 1978 cult television series White Shadow), and succeeds in presenting a film that illustrates an exceptionally positive and important message about taking on responsibility and making way for the future through discipline in education, athletics and life.
Carter and scribes Mark Schwahn and John Gatins were smart not to hype up the Big Game and thus focuses on subplots to bring home some realistic messages the rest of Hollywood and this country sometimes shies away from. For example, Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez) gets caught between the ‘glamour’ of the gangsta lifestyle while battling the straight-ahead pace of his coach. Meanwhile, Kenyon (Rob Brown) has his own troubles: he wants to go to college but pregnant girlfriend Kyra (Ashanti) has dreams of a different sort.
While the use of well thought out subplots is intelligent, in this movie it is Jackson who commands the most attention. His portrayal of the commitment and dedication of Coach Carter exemplifies the fact he is a uniquely gifted actor who exudes a charismatic cool and smooth assertiveness that captivates the audience with anything he says or does. It’s that same intensity he possessed in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Unbreakable (2000) that makes him so believable as a coach and an understanding friend and mentor. He gets the job done, making Coach Carter feel familiar, a remarkable hero that draws out respect in encouraging that education is more important than winning a basketball game.
Although at times the movie feels a little bloated and predictable, the movie promises to be one of the most inspirational of the new year, an influential story of how one man was able to find a way to reach into the hearts and minds of children and turn them into adults. The fabric of that message isn’t torn, Coach Carter is bold and cunning because human drama overpowers sport, an inspirational lesson that crosses boundaries and encourages how to live life.