wed 18/09/2019

Undefeated | reviews, news & interviews

Undefeated

Undefeated

Gritty documentary goes to Memphis to see if sport can empower the disenfranchised

Who's the daddy now? Coach Courtney gets close to a Manassas Tiger

There’s a lot of sport about at the minute, and those of us who get off on it are filling our boots. So it’s perhaps not the ideal moment to release a sporting documentary, however rousing, however laudable, especially one about that most unOlympic of team games, US football. If Undefeated makes a legitimate claim on the attention, it’s because it is all about legacy, that ubiquitous buzz word of London 2012.

The drama of this improving documentary unfolds in a working-class area of North Memphis, Tennessee, which has entered a downward spiral after the closure of the local industrial plant. Social deprivation is reflected in the chaotic lives of kids who turn up at Manassas High School, or don’t. There are regular shootings, arrests, people dropping out – “I think that sums up the last two weeks for me,” says a well-meaning coach called Bill Courtney, who has been working with a school football team for six years. None of the teachers can recall a single victory in more than a decade, but in the year the filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin turn up, things miraculously begin to turn around.

Undefeated begins with a defeat, establishing quite how steep the upcoming slope is. The kids seem more focused on scrapping with one another than taking on local schools on the football field. Among the Manassas Tigers the film follows is a ne’er-do’well called Chavis who simply can’t keep a lid on his behavioural issues and is eventually suspended. Also featured along the way are OC, a sizeable unit who has set his heart on playing college football but doesn’t have the grades. “I know it’s going to be my way out because I’m not the smartest kid in the world,” he explains (a lot of the speech is subtitled). And then there’s the ironically named Money, who doesn’t have the wherewithal to pay his way through college.

But the real star of Undefeated is coach Courtney, a big bear of a man who keeps coming back every year for more punishment. Having seen his own father walk out on him at the age of four, he all but turns his back on his own brood to become a patriarchal inspiration to this group of mostly fatherless young men. “I will never be their father,” he says, “but I can sure as heck tell them, ‘It’s nothing you’ve done.’” The task calls for the patience of a saint, and finds him patiently unburdening himself of a constant series of peptalks about character. “Football doesn’t build character,” he explains. “Football reveals character.” When Manassas Tigers are losing at half time in one game, as seems to be their wont even when on an unprecedented winning streak, he bawls a single word: “CHARACTER!”

The philosophy underpinning the coach’s commitment to the team is not dissimilar to that of cultural programmes we know about: “If you win at football you end up winning at life.” Culture may not be about winning the way sport is, but otherwise you can split the difference between the story that unfolds here and that of El Sistema. Chavis duly learns to be less disruptive and serve to the larger group, OC gets private tuition to see him through exams and a deus ex machina in the form of a private benefactor agrees to pay Money’s way through college. And along the way the team learn the habit of winning.

The game sequences are almost incidental but are still have a visceral impact. If Undefeated has a weakness, it’s not to do with sentimentality: the several weepy moments are handled with unexpected discretion. The film being strictly observational, there’s no clear explanation of why the Manassas Tigers suddenly start winning. And while it touches on it, the narrative tends to skirt the issue of the white man in a black man’s world, and indeed vice versa. When OC stays with a white family to get his private education, he’s shocked to see people jogging along the roads of the well-appointed neighbourhood. If he did that round his way, he suggested, “They’ll think I’m running from the police or something.”

Watch the trailer for Undefeated

The philosophy underpinning the coach’s commitment to the team is not dissimilar to that of cultural programmes we know about

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.