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Friday Night Lights

Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, Lukas Black

(Universal; US theatrical: 8 Oct 2004; 2004)

Soul Control

I got a letter from the government
The other day.
I opened and read it.
It said they were suckers.
They wanted me for their army or whatever.
Picture me given’ a damn I said never.
—Public Enemy, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”

Winning is what kids live for now because for most of them there isn’t the promise of big money later. That’s why it’s hard for me to watch the NBA.
—Billy Bob Thornton, The Sporting News (6 October 2004)

Friday Night Lights opens with a majestic image of Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), running toward the camera in long shot and slow motion, chiseled, shirtless. He runs every morning, attended by adoring young boys on bicycles, his headphones blasting Public Enemy. Stunningly handsome and charismatic, Boobie (birth-named James) is the superstar running back for the Permian High Panthers, in the West Texas town of Odessa. In 1988, his senior year, he’s going to take the team all the way to the State Championship. He knows it, his teammates know it, the local football enthusiasts know it.

Based on a true story by way of a book by H.G. Bissinger (director Peter Berg’s cousin), Friday Night Lights is only partly about football the game. It’s mostly about how football—in this place, at this time—overwhelms its adherents, apparently giving them something to live for but also sucking their lives from them. That Boobie enters the film with Public Enemy suggests that he has something else going on, that he has a sense of the world outside Odessa, where he lives with his Uncle L.V. (Grover Coulson) and dreams big. When he speaks to reporters—as it seems all the high school players must negotiate with faceless, pushy throngs each season—Boobie plays the part. “Should we believe the hype?” they ask. “Hype is not real,” he smiles. “I’m all real.” Because he’s an athlete, he’s assured of “straight As.” This even if he’s unable to read the bigger words in the college applications recruiters are sending him in piles.

Given all this adulation and his resulting sense of entitlement, the film never quite contextualizes Boobie’s affection for PE, and so it floats as some abstract marker of the time period and of Boobie’s blackness. It’s not that he doesn’t have black teammates—the silent Ivory Christian, also called Preacher (Lee Jackson) and the backup running back Chris (Lee Thompson Young)—have relatively prominent supporting roles, on the team and in the film. And the team also includes tight end Brian Chaves (Jay Hernandez), razzed by his fellows for being too nice and yes, being Mexican: “You’re like a piñata,” they joke, because no matter what anyone sends his way, he spits out candy.

It’s no use being nice in the business they’re in. As the film shows from frame one, these kids are under enormous pressure to perform, to deliver to adults’ expectations and needs. While Boobie wants to get him and his uncle up out of the flat, empty dryness of Odessa, quarterback Mike (Lucas Black, the kid in Slingblade) hunches over his plate, wolfing down food while his mother (Connie Cooper), whom he describes as “not right,” mutters and twitches over a list of plays, drilling him so that he can think of nothing else but the game. The new season is about to start, at which point all business close down for home games at the 20,000-seat Ratliff Stadium, and caravans follow the team bus away. Young tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) catches it as much at home as at games. His dad Charles (Tim McGraw, in a remarkable first time movie performance) wears a State Championship ring and has never had a life since that moment. Drunk, ugly, angry and violent, he pushes Don around in front of his friends, abuses him repeatedly for not being able to “hold onto the ball” (at one point interrupting the kid’s after hours sexual play with a pretty girl to duct-tape his football into his hands).

The fervor and the strain never let up. The only guy in town who seems to have a handle on priorities, on how the game is indeed a game that might build character but might also not be worth the anxiety and pain, is Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton, who brings a welcome low-key element to all the hysteria mounting around him). The film moves along according to the game schedule, from preseason to post-, with terrific, bone-crunching on-the-field footage, shot by Tobias Schliessler and brutally (in a good way) edited by David Rosenbloom and Colby Parker Jr.

While the detail of the game drama is surely moving, even if, or perhaps especially if, you don’t watch much football, the domestic and social situations are less compelling, in part because they are unoriginal, but mostly because they are rendered in predictable forms. Parents are cruel, miserable or ignorant, kids are rebellious and also committed t the team, coach is noble and patient, and coach’s wife Sharon (Connie Britton) is even more patient (his daughter pops up at film’s end, unmentioned previously). When Odessa’s sure thing looks endangered by injury and swelling lack of confidence, the town’s elders (the guys with cowboy shirts, boots, and relative clout) turn especially menacing, warning Gaines that if he loses the big game, he’s also lost his job. “I’ve been thinking about Alaska,” says Sharon. “They don’t take football so seriously.”

This sort of obsession and desperation (as high school sports become a sign of status or a ticket out of a kid and his family’s underclass situation) is a familiar subject, most notably in Kenneth A. Carlson’s Go Tigers! (a 2001 documentary about the Massillon, Ohio high school football team) and Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994). Commendably, Friday Night Lights for the most part avoids simplifying the complexities of such mania, neither condemning it nor quite celebrating it, focusing on the boys’ efforts to deal with plainly impossible expectations. Still, the film does occasionally lapse into easy shorthands—the animated chart to show the team’s ascent to the semi-finals and the championship, and worse, the representation of their eventual and much-discussed opponent, the team from Dallas’s Carter High School. These kids are giants, all black in scarlet red uniforms; even their slow-motion-swaggering super-cheerleaders look intimidating to the white girls on Permian’s squad (reminiscent of the Clovers in Bring It On), as the film assumes their suddenly cowed point of view.

The last game features lots of hard hits, slam cuts, and white guy rock and roll, rather than PE, which makes sense thematically, but also indicates Friday Night Lights’ general trajectory. These kids are not fighting the power, much as they or you might want to believe it. They’re always part of it.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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