A Person Like Yourself
What the clock say?
—Elston (Bernie Mac)
The most striking aspect of Pride is the bodies. It’s not only that the actors—who for the most part play swimmers—have apparently spent some serious time in the pool or otherwise working out in order to develop physiques that look like they do swim. And it’s not only that their street gear is circa-‘70s fine attire, though the plaid or orange-and-green patterns are excellent. It’s also that the bodies are framed and lit to be seen. In a movie where characters appear in dimly lit interiors or near light-reflecting chlorine-blue pools, this is no small thing.
The first sequence makes such emphasis on visibility clear. A young (college-aged) Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) arrives for a swim meet with his team in North Carolina. He and his white coach (Louis Herthum) pause briefly in a tunnel on their way to the contest, to discuss bad news. The upfront-racist home team has threatened to cancel the meet because Jim is entered. Both their faces reveal the pain of this situation, as well as their resolve. In the next moment, they emerge from the shadowed tunnel to poolside, where Jim is booed by white men in white shirts and ladies in pointy glasses; when he strips down to his swimsuit, he’s surrounded by pale white torsos. The effectiveness of the scene, in terms of visual composition, results from a series of subtle design and lighting choices, so the hostility Jim feels is connoted by a general slightly-too-bright-whiteness, and, at the same time, all faces and forms are equally legible.
The scene leads to disaster: when a uniformed cop shows up to take Jim away in order to “avoid trouble,” the young swimmer fights back and is arrested for assaulting an officer. The record will follow him to Philadelphia, where the rest of this true story-inspired movie is set: it figures prominently later, nearly ruining a romance and hard-won professional success. Such tiresome sports-uplift machinations (assembled by no less than four writers) are daunting, to be sure, but Pride offers other pleasures that almost overcome this handicap.
Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard), Walt (Alphonso McAuley), Andre (Kevin Phillips), Hakim (Nate Parker), Puddin Head (Brandon Fobbs) and Reggie (Evan Ross)
Jim’s efforts to find a job after graduation take him to Main Line Academy in 1974, where he meets with an administrator who putts in his office and calls himself Bink (Tom Arnold). When Bink dismisses Jim for being “a person like yourself,” it’s clear that, even 10 years later in the Northeast, not much has changed for a young black man who swims. The phrase underlines the point that Jim is “unlike” the insular mainliners. It also leads directly to his discovery of a place populated by other people who are like him, or at least look like him. Emphasis on race as a basis for prejudice is one thing; emphasis on race as a basis for dignity (and yes, “pride”) is something else.
This place is a Philadelphia Department of Recreation center. Sent by the city to pack up the dilapidated location for closing, Jim meets the seemingly-but-not-really-curmudgeonly head of maintenance, Elston (Bernie Mac), who doesn’t quite narrate the center’s glory days, but essentially embodies an era when the windows weren’t broken and drugs weren’t dealt on the basketball court. Though Elston disapproves, Jim sets up a mattress in a back room and starts cleaning and packing.
He also discovers a pool that has somehow withstood its neglect to remain pristine and clean. Here, the film can’t seem to help itself, booming up the discovery with a low angle close-up of Jim’s perking-up face as he hears a drip-drip and smells the chlorine, music swelling and rebirth plot percolating. Yes, he swims, and yes, he inspires the boys on the court outside to come inside and start swimming too. Miraculously, all the boys find a stroke that suits them, so they’re able to put together a team. Unsurprisingly, each has his signature “issue”: Hakim (Nate Parker) has a hard time in school, Reggie (Evan Ross) is easily bullied by the big-chested dealer Franklin (Gary Anthony Sturgis), Andre (Kevin Phillips), cocky but big-hearted, looks after Reggie, and Willie (Regine Nehy) is the girl.
Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) and Elston (Bernie Mac)
They do, apparently, have lives before Jim, but as it takes only one stirring speech from Jim to get them to attend regular practices. After lurking in some doorways with his mop in hand, Elston signs on too, and with the help of a local councilwoman, Sue (Kimberly Elise), who has previously been trying to shut down the center (now known as PDR), finds a meet where they can compete, at least on paper. This goes very wrong (for some reason coach doesn’t prepare the team for the onslaught): a Main Line booster whispers loudly, “I didn’t know they swam!” and a Main Line team member calls them “the Harlem Globetrotters,” before the team kicks their asses in the pool. (For whatever reason, Bink is now the Main Line swim coach, tediously cartoonish.) Following their defeat, the team absorbs one more motivational speech from coach (Howard delivers these mouthfuls with conviction and jazz, so the clichés go down more easily than usual), and with that, they’re on their way to the championship meet.
As plot, all this is as banal and grating as it sounds. Every time you want to forgive it, the movie plunks down another egregious cliché—the physical showdown with Franklin, the local media uproar (complete with white lady reporter wielding a mic), the accusation of betrayal, the team’s literally last-minute rally Against All Odds. But again, Pride brings something else that makes the after-school-special silliness seem secondary. First, and importantly, this is an uplift-the-race film where the inspirational coach/teacher/mentor is black. As well-intentioned as characters played by Josh Lucas and Hilary Swank may be, this image (lit and designed with its significance in mind) resonates. This is enhanced by the fact that the kids’ very visible supporters at meets are the “community,” mostly anonymous black faces (parents and church members) who, despite the conspicuous device, do something unusual: they make a worthy political point.