Do you understand what that’s like, to have that ball in your hand? It’s like making sweet music with your game. Only thing is, you don’t wanna hear the song.
—Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), Glory Road
The fans would call us “niggers,” “coons,” “bucks,” all kind of derogatory names. And even now when I think about it, it draws up stuff in me that doesn’t feel good.
—Harry Flournoy, “In Their Own Words: 1966”
As he begins his commentary for the DVD of Glory Road, director James Gartner wonders out loud if “anyone really listens to these things.” Such performance of endearing insecurity notwithstanding, he launches into a detailed explanation of his film, from lighting decisions to “simple” camera set-ups to the era-establishing montage of newsy moments (the Vietnam war, Bill Cosby, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali). Less than a minute later, the film begins, with Don Haskins (Josh Lucas, whom Gartner describes as looking “more like Paul Newman than Paul Newman, Paul Newman in the Hustler years”) coaching a girls’ basketball team in Fort Worth. “This, by the way,” says Gartner, “is very true.” And so already he’s underlining the film’s veracity, a point that rather given that questions raised on its release.
But in a Jerry Bruckheimer sports movie, truth and good intentions have little chance against formula. The saga of Haskins—enthusiastic and hard-driving, inspiring his underdog NCAA team to athletic and moral victories—is about as predictable as you can imagine. Much like its obvious model, Remember the Titans, the movie focuses on brilliant young basketball players in the midst of social and political turmoil: they battle not only better funded programs, but also racism in 1965-‘66.
When Haskins takes a job at Texas Western in El Paso—moving into the boys’ dorm with wife Mary (Emily Deschanel), who repeatedly appears with baby on hip—he’s met with the usual naysayers. Potential white players reject his interest in them out of hand, and when he decides to recruit black players for the Miners, one of his assistant coaches warns him, “Son, you can’t win playing nigger ball. Sure, they can jump, but they can’t lead… They don’t have the intelligence.” In the theater, this line drew the expected laugh, as viewers counted themselves smarter than this guy who saw no writing on the wall. Gartner uses this moment in the film to discuss his relationship with Derek Luke, who plays Bobby Joe Hill, the guard Haskins is trying to recruit, observing that he “actually learned a lot about directing from Derek… and Josh.”
Gartner’s commentary is consistently framed by his concern with race dynamics, to the point of wanting to “include gospel music” to underline the period tensions and hopes. (Bruckheimer, his commentating “partner,” pops in occasionally, clearly recorded separately, and mostly making obvious points, as when he notes the usefulness of basketball advisors who helped with “the verisimilitude that our actors have.”) When Haskins tries to convince Hill to come to Texas Western, separated by tremendous distance even inside the locker room where Hill is changing clothes (Haskins stands in his off-the-rack suit, hands in pockets, surrounded by a scattering of bright white towels), Gartner says, “I saw this scene as, you know, here’s another white coach making white promises, and so Derek’s character explodes here, and again, it’s that quiet anger.” Gartner goes on, making the most of his teaching moment: “And he doesn’t blow against Haskins, he blows against the times. It was a time when not many blacks got the opportunity to play.”
After rather understating this history, Gartner observes that Bobby and Haskins (“who drove a school bus and coached high school girls’ basketball”) are the same, as both have “everything going against them.” Maybe not exactly the same.
Nevertheless, Haskins insists he’ll do right by Bobby Joe, asserting, “I can make your dreams come true faster than a twister’ll take your socks off.” Bobby Joe’s jaw drops: “You talk funny.” But the corn-speak is part of Don’s cagey shtick. When Bobby Joe asks for a commitment to start him, Haskins comes back, “I don’t see color. I see quick, I see skill.” He convinces another player to sign on by challenging him to a little one-on-one: “I’ll eat your lunch, steal your girl, and kick your dog at the same time.” And he does, more or less, at which point the kid signs up. When one mother worries that he wants to take her son to El Paso (“To get lynched?” she asks), Don charms her in a couple of lines of dialogue. He even convinces star center David Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr) to sign on, a surprising turn marked by his arrival in a very fancy car with all kinds of attitude.
As Haskins travels around the country finding players, Gartner repeats that what you’re seeing is “true,” as Haskins told him this truth and screenwriters Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois researched it (their separate commentary track tends to repeat Gartner’s points, that their essential plot is accurate, that Haskins “never saw those limits”). One of Haskins’ stories involves his recruitment of forward Harry Flournoy’s (Mehcad Brooks): the kid runs ahead of him as Coach follows him, trying “to get him into his car.” When the kid rightly refuses to get into a strange white man’s car, Haskins, as Gartner tells it, “Beat him home and ate his pie. The only thing I could never get straight was what kind of pie it was, but everything else was true.”
Cleveland and Gilois tell the same story, though they got it from Flournoy; in fact, they gleaned much of the story from meeting with the players, who still get together annually, and “have a shtick with each other.” The DVD includes a number of featurettes, on actors learning skills and shooting strategies, though the most compelling is a 22-minute documentary, “In Their Own Words: 1966,” full of Miners’ talking heads and old footage and photos, showing the actual team back then. As Flournoy remembers,
People would call you names and people would spit at you and people would try to trip you up, because there was this real narrow sidelines. It was a time in our lives, when we should have had the best time of our lies, but it was a time when we were feeling so much pressure as far as he racial pressure, that we weren’t having a good time. It was more of a job than recreation.
The film has to compress all this grief, of course, and so “In Their Own Words” makes clear some of the particulars, including the mail Coach received from black leaders, who saw him as an “exploiter” of his black players, and Flournoy’s memories of being called a “Tom” by his friends back home in Gary, Indiana. The film does suggest that Haskins “gets” racism and specifically, racist violence against his players (white fans throw trash at them as they enter arenas, graffiti is left on their motel room walls). But he stays focused on the game, seeing winning as the best way to “instruct” opponents. At least until he learns he’s been getting hate mail at home and Mary’s been hiding it from him. But while that does upset him, it’s the players who have to deal with the fact that one of their number is beaten bloody in a diner bathroom as they bus through the South; Coach remains mostly unseen during their deliberations. His most radical act—and it is a profound one in its way—is to start five black players at the finals, the first time in NCAA history.
Though the black players feel like they’ve landed “in Bonanza,” and the white players have never seen black people before, Haskins determines to train the players in his system (the film allows that the black players do bring “intelligence” beyond his, and when he lets them play their “way,” they start winning pretty much non-stop). Their eventual cohesion leads them to the ‘66 NCAA finals, where they face the much better funded, all Caucasian University of Kentucky champions. They’re coached by the unfortunately named Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight under yet another inventive makeup job), whose exasperation shots tend to feature confederate flags in the background. He’s a needlessly egregious villain, sneering at the black players at a moment in history when no white authorities in the sport imagine that “Negroes [are] gonna be the future of basketball.”
One of the Kentucky team members is Pat Riley (played by Wes Brown), who appears in the look-back documentary, recalling his own tears when his team lost. Little did he know then that he’d be coaching Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Tim Hardaway, Shaq, and Dwyane Wade. As Riley and other players portrayed in the film remember, the Texas Western championship was a mixed blessing, as the players had to endure more abuse afterwards. Still, as a “history-changing” event, it’s clearly extraordinary. Glory Road includes enough images of hard violence to show at least some of the costs for the Miners. Rousing, manipulative, and predictable, the movie knows its business.