“Hallelujah, brothers and sisters and welcome to the Wonderful Church of Disney! Tonight’s sermon will be Drop-Kicking Racism Through the Goalposts of Life, the Rev. Denzel Washington presiding. Amen!”
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Yes, the mouse-eared studio’s production of Remember the Titans comes on strong and never lets up and, yes, your skull will be sore for weeks on end from all the messages being hammered into it, and, yes, Washington is his usual fine, fiery self playing another real-life character primed for sainthood…and yet…the film is undeniably engaging in a sugar-coated, rosy-glasses kind of way. I think the term they use these days is “old-fashioned moviemaking.” The script is peppered with enough righteous, music-swelling, lump-in-throat speeches to make John Wayne, Martin Luther King and Ronald “the Gipper” Reagan proud.
You just don’t get any feel-gooder than Remember the Titans.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love to feel good. I especially love to feel good at the movies, the last best retreat from reality our society offers. There’s nothing better than walking out of the Cinema Cathedral with a glowing heart and a rejuvenated soul.
But when the screenwriter (Gregory Allen Howard, in this case) wields a moral sledgehammer every ten minutes, pounding important messages into our brains, those bumps on the head start to feel not-so-good.
Don’t misunderstand me. Remember the Titans is a very well-intentioned movie and those sledgehammered messages of brotherhood and unity are certainly worth heeding. Since it was made by our national family studio, it is refreshingly clean-cut viewing for all ages (no sex, no excrement, only mild profanities and the majority of violence occurs on the football field). In fact, my daughter first watched the film in her fifth-grade class one day last month (it’s “entertaining and educational!”). So, maybe I’m being unfairly prickly when it comes to the way it delivers the sermon. Like Schindler’s List, it’s an “important” movie; unlike Spielberg’s masterpiece, it lays that importance on thick, using a trowel and plenty of oozing mortar.
Directed with unremarkable skill by Boaz Yakin, Remember the Titans tells the story of how racial integration came to Alexandria, Virginia in the fall of 1971. Busing was in the headlines, Shaft was at the box office and peaceful civil disobedience was starting to give way to violent radicalism with bombs, bricks and baseball bats. That year finds racial lines drawn right down the middle of Alexandria.
Particularly upsetting is the fact that T.C. Williams High School is about to be integrated as black students from two other schools in the city are brought in to mingle with white kids in the hallways. The movie starts at the end of summer as the school’s new football coach arrives to take his Titans to training camp. Herman Boone (Washington) is a no-nonsense, tricky-minded coach who won’t tolerate any B.S. from his players. Or his fellow coaches, for that matter. Heightening the tension is the fact that Boone is replacing the school’s much-loved coach of nearly two decades, Bill Yost (Will Patton). The black citizens gather on Boone’s front lawn to welcome him with loud cheers and applause; the white folks, however, are hot under their redneck collars, thinking that Yost has been passed over simply because Boone is black and the school officials are trying to cool the city’s temper. “We don’t want another Watts on our hands,” says someone in a suit.
Boone smartly retains Yost as his assistant coach, placing him in charge of the team’s defensive strategy. At first, neither man fully trusts the other and those scenes of edgy tension are played with such subtlety by both Washington and Patton that the subsurface acting skills are nearly invisible. These two men know their characters and establish the tone of the movie through their interaction.
Meanwhile, Boone tells the black population: “I’m not your savior or Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ or the Easter Bunny. I’m just a football coach.”
Yes, but what a football coach he is. He rules over his team like a Marine drill instructor, berating black and white players with a refreshingly colorblind attitude. The football field is his sanctuary and the Titans are his fear-inspired congregation. At summer camp, he drills them into the ground with relentless physical exercise, gets them up at 3 a.m. for a run through the woods (which symbolically ends at the Gettysburg battlefield), he grabs facemasks and screams into players’ faces. “There’s a fine line between tough and crazy and you’re flirting with it,” Yost warns him. But Boone knows what he’s doing—starting with the team’s prejudiced white captain (memorably played by Ryan Hurst), he blends black and white into a solid gray team.
This is the core of the movie, which is more about race relations than it is football (though the sports scenes are filmed with great clarity and emotional resonance). As the title instructs, we are to remember the Titans and how they mixed in brotherly love that summer of 1971. Trust me, it would be hard to forget the things the script teaches us (my skull lumps are still healing).
The movie is “based on a true story.” There really was a Herman Boone and there really was racial disharmony at T.C. Williams High School in the early 1970s. This is the second film in a row where Washington has played a real-life activist. Like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Herman Boone has fire running through his veins. Unlike the boxing Hurricane, Boone’s activism is quieter, subtler—but just as powerful. No one, especially not the jersey-shirted Titans, can resist the laser-eyed stare that is Washington’s trademark. He is tougher and meaner in this role than the gentle, grinning Denzel we’ve come to expect—and that, as they say, makes all the difference in the world. Boone is one of Washington’s best performances and I’m sure the real-life Boone, though he may be nothing like the screen version, is justifiably proud of the way he was portrayed.
The cloak of history settles over Remember the Titans like a wool blanket, reminding us that its outcome is already pre-ordained and that the events are even more crucial because they really happened. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t leave much room in the picture for surprise. The sports plot strictly follows the Hollywood formula—though it’s well-crafted, it is predictable. As are the cheers and tears which will follow the big moments—the locker room speeches, the huddle sermons, the sideline rhetoric, the “win one for the Gipper” hospital scene. The formula works…but then the filmmakers already knew that, didn’t they?
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