Oscar winning documentary Undefeated sees its European premiere today at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The story promises an inspirational journey into the world of high school sports and the doors it can open for deprived young men as seen throughout many a large community in the US, but does it also deliver? Ben Unwin reviews.
At their very best sporting films transcend the need to know anything about the sport itself and become metaphors for life. Undefeated by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin succeeds in this in that I wouldn’t know a “wide receiver” from a hole in the ground but was riveted to the screen from start to finish. In fact it is a bit misleading to even bracket this film within the sporting genre as it encompasses many subjects ranging from the state of education in Tennessee to the inner city poverty of North Memphis. The film is a window into the common problem of what happens to an area when the major industry leaves, removing any almost any chance of future employment and therefore hope for young people.
It is almost impossible to describe this documentary without spoiling it for you, but over the course of one season it follows the Manassas high school football team, The Tigers, and the school’s all round whipping boys, as they endeavour to win matches in the face of adversity.
Volunteer coach Bill Courtney explains how on his arrival at Manassas it was “arguably one of the worst football programmes in the entire state” and how he has had to endure in one season what for most coaches would be a “career’s worth of crap”.
“You think that football builds character,” he says, ”but it doesn’t. It reveals character.” And indeed this film reveals a lot of character, mostly it’s the coach’s incredible character and his passion for building a team from a group of students with difficult backgrounds and no shortage of anger management problems. It draws us into a world where for many young Afro-American men the only hope of getting out of an area and obtaining a successful future is getting a football scholarship. The film reminded me a lot of Steve James’ 2011 documentary The Interrupters in that it is about people who are willing to go out of their way and sacrifice parts of their daily lives to help others. It is refreshing to see a movie that shows one man living up to his Christian values of ‘help thy neighbour’ without snide comments or judgement.
Undefeated is at times exhilarating and at others heart breaking, but above all this is a revealing film about an area of high school sports that remains hidden from the view of mainstream America.
I knew nothing about this film before I saw it and in fact I think that’s the best way to see it, so go see it, as Undefeated is simply one of the best docs I have seen this year.
For more information on screenings please visit the Undefeated website here.