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Coach Carter Review

By Shawn McKenzie 01/14/2005

If anyone knows me personally, they know that I’m not a big fan of sports.  That’s no slam to the people who do like them or play in them; I just don’t like them myself.  They bore me, at least to watch, because they don’t have the same drama as a movie or a TV show for me.  I do like sports movies though.  It’s kind of like competitive reality shows; all of the thrill of watching a game plus the drama that surrounds it before, during, and after the event.  Lately though, they have become so clichéd and sappy that they have become as boring to me as the real sports that they portray within.  Fortunately, for the latest “inspirational” sports movie Coach Carter, this one manages to have some heart and avoid some of the clichés that most other sports movies have been guilty of doing.

It’s 1999 and Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), the owner of a sports equipment shop in a neighborhood in Richmond, CA, was a former basketball coach.  He had planned to just be a businessman and even go on a vacation with his wife Tonya (Debbi Morgan), but then he gets a call from the old coach of the Richmond High Oilers, Coach Ray White (Mel Winkler.)  The team is in shambles because of the fights, cursing, and the overall attitudes of the members of the basketball team.  It’s because of this that the team had a horrible losing season last year, and White has no idea how to rein in the players.  Carter is reluctant at first, but after seeing how badly the school has become, he agrees to take the job, but only under his conditions.  He had once played for the Oilers when he was in high school, and he still holds many records on the court, so he was ashamed to see how badly the school had fallen apart.  After meeting with the school’s principal, Ms. Garrison (Denise Dowse), he gives her conditions in which he will take the job, and she blindly accepts them, not knowing what exactly he has in mind, because she just wants the team to win again.  Carter then meets with the team, including Jason “Worm” Willis (Antwon Tanner), Junior Battle (Nana Gbewonyo), Jason Lyle (Channing Tatum), Maddux (Texas Battle), Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez), and Kenyan Stone (Rob Brown.)  While there are more players on the team, the movie focuses on these characters the most.  Kenyon’s girlfriend, Kyra (R&B singer Ashanti, in her movie acting debut and who ironically doesn’t sing on the movie’s soundtrack), is pregnant with his baby.  Kenyon’s best friends, Worm and Maddux, get him in trouble often.  Worm has a white girlfriend named Susan (Lacey Beeman), but he is still also a player.  Cruz has a cousin named Renny (Vincent Laresca) who gets him in trouble by having him deal drugs.  Though he takes Renny’s money, he actually wants to be on the straight up-and-up.  Junior is a practically illiterate troublemaker whose brother Anton had been killed in some gang violence, and his mother Willa (Octavia Spencer) wants him to straighten up so he can avoid the same fate.  Lyle is the only white guy on this team with any lines in this movie, but he doesn’t really have much of a subplot.  Carter does want to see his team to win, but he is more concerned with the boys’ futures and wants to see them eventually go to college by doing well in school, not just coast on a basketball scholarship.  He makes them sign a contract where in which they agree to go to class, sit in the front row, and wear decent apparel, including a tie, on game day.  More than that, they are required to keep a 2.3 G.P.A., more than the 2.0 G.P.A. that the school normally requires in order to play sports.  Some players leave the team, including Cruz, but the rest stay.  That night, Carter’s son, Damien (Robert Ri’chard), asks to transfer from his private school, St. Francis, where a fellow player named Ty Crane (Sidney Faison) is the star player for the St. Francis Mustangs, to Richmond High so that he can play for his dad.  He agrees to maintain a 3.5 G.P.A. if Carter says yes, which his father does, but Carter raises the agreed G.P.A. to 3.7.  From that point on, the team goes on an undefeated winning streak, even with the help of Cruz, who finally decides to sign Carter’s contract (after Carter puts him through his paces, including hundreds of push-ups and running “suicides,” which is just running up and down the court.)  Despite the wins, Carter finds out a few things that make him upset.  First, after the local winning championship game, he finds out that the team, including Damien, had snuck out of their hotel rooms and had gone to a party at Susan’s dad’s (Marc McClure) house.  Second, and most importantly, he finds out that several players in Mr. Gesek’s (Ben Weber) class have not lived up to their agreement to maintain their grades.  He decides to lock the gym, cancel the games, and refuses to allow the team to play or even practice until they get their grades back up.  Some of the players’ parents, including Worm’s mother (Sonya Eddy), Kenyon’s mother (Gwen McGee), and Maddux’s mother (Ausanta), demand that the school board, headed by President Martinez (Jenny Gago), fire Carter.  They see basketball as their kids’ only way out of poverty and a bleak future, but Carter disagrees.  He gives them stats about dropout rates, gang violence, and future jail terms, some of which they dismiss.  He is soon attacked verbally and physically (a rock is thrown through his shop’s front window), but he stands his ground.  Through hard work and determination, he inspires the boys to make a better life for themselves overall, and not just on the basketball court.

The real Ken Carter coached the Richmond Oilers from 1997 to 2002.  Several of the players from his 1999 team went on to earn four-year scholarships, including his son Damien who was awarded a full scholarship to West Point Military Academy.  Carter was selected to carry the Olympic Flame as it made its way to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games in 2002.  Director Thomas Carter (the last name is a coincidence; he isn’t related to the coach) with screenwriters Mark Schwahn and John Gatins read about Carter’s story and collaborated with him to bring it to the big screen.

When I first heard about the basic plotline of the story, I rolled my eyes.  I thought it was going to be like every other movie that has been released in the last few years, including Miracle, Radio, Remember the Titans, and more.  I didn’t want to see more of the same.  It didn’t end up that way though, for a couple of reasons.  The first one is that it crossed over slightly into another clichéd subgenre of the “teacher who cleans up the school,” which includes movies like Lean on Me (which was another true story) and Dangerous Minds.  By morphing the two types of movies together, it at least made it a little bit original, though I bet we’ll be seeing that happening again in future movies.  The second one is that the ending of the movie didn’t go the way I had been expecting.  I don’t want to give away the end, but I was happy that it didn’t end in a way that could have been written by me or anyone who has seen every other sports movie in the last 30 years.  For that, I’m grateful, since I still don’t think that I have my own screenwriting skills up to snuff yet.

If it weren’t for the fact that this movie is being released in January, I would be hoping for some award show lovin’ for Jackson.  He was excellent as Carter, with the right mixture of toughness and compassion that the character required.  As for the rest of the cast…let’s just say that they showed some team spirit, but I don’t think that we had any MVP’s.  The highlighted players weren’t the best actors, and the two actors who were the best, Ri’chard (who plays Arnez on UPN’s “One on One”) and Morgan (whose best role was as Elizabeth Harvey in ABC’s “Roots: The Next Generations”), weren’t given much screen time.

Coach Carter is one of those sports movies that luckily doesn’t bore you thanks to a great performance by Jackson and an unpredictable end.  The only thing I would criticize it for would be its length, clocking in at almost 2 ½ hours.  Other than that, it doesn’t drag, and it turned out to be a better than average movie.  This is the first movie of 2005 for Jackson, who will be starring in several movies this year, including In My Country, XXX: State of the Union, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and The Man, but since half of these movies are small roles anyway, this movie might be his most talked-about performance of the year.  If this movie does well, maybe it will eventually win the box office championships.


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