I was there, in the right place, at the right time, knowing my lines, knowing their lines, helping them sometimes when they didn’t, giving them advice when they did.
—Samuel L. Jackson, MTV News (10 January 2005)
When Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) first arrives at Richmond high school to take over the basketball team, the retiring coach looks relieved. And if Carter doesn’t quite know what he’s in for, you have a slight idea, because you know the Oilers’ recent seasonal record is 4-22. They lack discipline, they’re distracted, and they don’t seen much reason to change. No matter. This is an underdogs sports movie. They will change.
Based on a real life coach, also named Ken Carter (who’s been hitting talk shows with Jackson to promote the film), Carter takes an approach that’s part Lean on Me meets Hoosiers, part Stand and Deliver meets Friday Night Lights, and okay, maybe a little White Shadow, too. That is, he stands up to all the doubters—including practical-minded Principal Garrison (Denise Dowse)—and insists that “these kids” (all looking too old to be in high school) can not only be great ballers, but also have futures beyond a single winning season. He’s got that ambition that all good teachers have in the movies, to salvage their charges’ lives, to make a difference. He makes them sign contracts, saying they’ll maintain 2.3 GPAs and wear suits on game days.
At first, no surprise, Carter’s up against the old guard thinking: a couple of (very tall) team members quit, the others aren’t immediately convinced that he’s serious when he demands they do 500 push-ups at a time or run 1000 suicides (those runs up and down the gym, sneakers squeaking on every turn). And the parents just want their children to win basketball games, as they too presume that none has a chance at college or a career. Indeed, some players struggle with personal issues—Worm (Antwon Tanner) brings attitude, Cruz (Rick Gonzales) has a dealer cousin (typecast Vincent Laresca) who expects loyalty, and Kenyon (Rob Brown, still high school balling, five years after Finding Forrester) doesn’t know how to handle the news that girlfriend Kyra (Ashanti) is pregnant. Before you can say, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” Coach has motivated his team to focus on what’s important—winning.
While Coach’s wife Tonya (Debbi Morgan) is wholly supportive (and sports a terrific, old-style Leslie Uggams do) and his loyal employee keeps the sporting goods store open, he does spend too much time at the gym, his hard-ass approach intimidating, enraging, and finally, inspiring the boys to do what he knows they can do—play like a team, learn Coach’s moves (“Everything I learned about basketball,” he says, “I learned from women”), and protect one another. Carter’s one, quite brief problem, has to do with his son Damien (Robert Ri’chard), whom he believes is safely ensconced at the winningest high school in the area. But Damien wants to play for dad, and so he withdraws from St. Francis and enrolls at Richmond (and for some reason, dad, so rigid with everyone else, okays this idea), where he’s ridiculed for wearing a tie and doing his homework. Dad refuses to “favor” him, but the kid is determined and the best clutch shooter, so he plays lots and runs up lots of points.
Per formula, however, the team can’t just be winning. Coach Carter includes the obligatory melodrama too: when Coach kicks Junior Battle (Nana Gbewonyo) off the team for not going to class, the kid’s mom pleads for a second chance (“I want him to play for you,” she says, big eyes irresistible). Carter keeps waiting for the teachers’ reports on his team members’ progress in class—waiting and waiting. Then he finds that the reason for no reports is twofold (the teachers aren’t into policing their students and the players aren’t going to class), and decides to punish everyone: he locks up the gym and cancels games, inciting outrage everywhere (this is the primary innovation by real-life Carter, apparently, as he and Jackson have discussed it repeatedly in interviews). The players revolt (tepidly, as in, “This is bullshit!”), Cruz hits the streets with his malevolent cousin, national media pick up the story (providing a cameo for Bob Costas), and the school board votes to restart the games, Carter or no Carter.
While the outcome is obvious (generic rules apply), Jackson is sharp and relatively restrained (no “And you will know my name is the Lord” type speeches), and Mark Schwahn and John Gatins’ script makes an effort to complicate the characters, despite the conventional situations and stereotypes (watch out for the Asian kid who doesn’t speak a complete sentence, but appears repeatedly, looking enthusiastic in multiple team shots, usually on the bench at games: the token Better Luck Tomorrow took apart persists, apparently unconsidered). Even Ashanti holds her own. But all these good efforts can’t overcome Coach Carter‘s essential banality.