Even a cursory glance at the coverage of the 2000 Olympics reveals Australia’s presentation of the Games to be focused on diversity and unity through sports. Aboriginal sprinter Kathy Freeman has come to represent the concept of “reconciliation” for the Games, as if the Australian government hopes her symbolic and actual victories might smooth over its brutal legacy of exploiting its native peoples. Similarly in the United States, sports are regarded by many to be an “even playing field,” where historically disenfranchised people, like African Americans, enjoy social freedoms not available in other social arenas. The notion of unity through sports, however, is more complicated and problematic than the happy face put on by Olympics Committees and other apologists.
The predominance of African Americans in sports such as basketball and football has historically led anxious observers to assert stereotypes and perpetuate “scientific” efforts to categorize black physical success as the result of innate, biological traits. The flip side of this classification has been a denigration by racist “authorities” (anthropologists, politicians, etc.) of African American intellectual abilities according to the “law of compensation,” which assumes that if blacks excel in physical activity, they must have a decreased mental capacity. By contrast, whites are stereotypically more “cerebral,” a rationalization that might underlie the disparity in numbers of black and white quarterbacks in the NFL, or the appallingly small numbers of black coaches and owners in professional sport. Such statistics are troubling, to say the least. But not for Remember the Titans, which offers up the inspiring notion that sports, in this case football, can erase racism, unify humanity, and allow us all, to quote Rodney King, to just get along.
Remember the Titans begins in 1971, the first year when in Alexandria, Virginia’s T.C. Williams High School must admit black students. Amid the furor over integration, Herman Boone (Denzel Washington), the new black football coach, arrives from North Carolina, displacing the beloved white head coach and incurring the wrath of white students and parents alike. Tensions run high between black and white players on the team, as well as between black and white members of the coaching staff. After a rigorous training camp, however, the team comes together, bonded by a common goal of victory on the football field. Differences are put aside, friendships are forged, and an entire community is united by the team’s shining example of racial harmony. The new friendships between the black and white players inspire white parents to open their previously closed homes to black players. And where Coach Boone’s white neighbors once threw bricks through his window, they now cheer his triumphant return home from a football game.
The film’s unwavering naive optimism might be forgivable if it didn’t claim to tell a tale “based on a true story.” While various critics have pointed out the film’s numerous historical inaccuracies, the social and political sugar-coating that takes place is even more disturbing. In one locker room scene, racial tension is first escalated by a black player insulting a white player’s mother. When the white player gets the joke, however, he responds in kind and black and white alike enjoy a unifying, hearty laugh. In another locker room scene, the new transfer quarterback (Kip Pardue), embarrasses defensive star Gary Bertier (Ryan Hurst) by kissing him. Although the film makes numerous references to the quarterback’s homosexuality, the kiss is treated as a harmless prank and the quarterback called “Sunshine” is fully accepted as one of the guys. While football may be an exclusively homosocial activity, it is anxiously heterosexual, at least in public. Like the military, the unwritten rules of football encourage all things “manly” and strictly preclude any homosexual or feminine behavior. Yet Remember the Titans glosses over any semblance of conflict with its unfailingly positive depiction of a team in harmony.
Such a depiction is hammered home by many sentimental moments, as characters take turns waxing philosophical to the accompaniment of a stirring orchestra. In once scene, assistant coach Yoast (the white former head coach played by Will Patton) confides, hat in hand, to Coach Boone that his wounded pride has gotten in the way of his coaching but now he is ready to make amends to ease their antagonistic relationship. Such moments reveal Remember the Titans‘s inclination to the cartoonish fantasies of the Walt Disney Corporation. These are intermixed with the action-packed, testosterone-charged stylings of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air, Enemy of the State, Armageddon), so that the film alternates between scenes of physically devastating football violence (as in the slow motion collisions shown in the championship game) and devastatingly bad dramatic moments. In one example, the star black player on the Titans, Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) visits Gary in hospital after the latter is paralyzed in a car wreck. Tearfully, the two join hands and pledge eternal friendship. Then Julius suggests that the two will live in the same neighborhood some day.
This scene, more than any other, encapsulates Remember the Titans’ desire to mold the complex and contentious history of race relations in sport into a soundbite that the audience can feel good about. The true tragedy of the moment is not Gary’s paralysis but Julius’ naive belief (and the film’s naive intimation) that his football experiences will put an end to racism. The film begins and concludes ten years later when the team reunites for Gary Bertier’s funeral (the film does not specify that he has died in yet another car accident some years later). While the former players stand together as one and sing a laughably mournful version of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” to honor their fallen teammate, Coach Yoast’s daughter Sheryl (a precocious nine-year-old for much of the film, played by Hayden Panettiere), now grown up, observes in a voiceover, “Whenever we reach for hate, we remember the Titans.”
As inspiring as all this sounds, the racist dispositions of sports figures like baseball pitcher John Rocker and the continuing lack of black management and coaching in the NFL reflect that some people in the world of sports, if any, actually remember the T.C. Williams Titans or, more to the point, what the film suggests they represent. Racism persists, particularly in the field of athletics, in an insidious and multifaceted fashion. African Americans’ athletic success continues to be bracketed by stereotypes dismissing their intellect and reducing their physical prowess to genetic “gifts” (assuming that athletes are born, not trained). At the same time, advertising agencies, corporate America (Nike, Reebok, Gatorade, etc.), and exclusively white management all profit greatly from black participation in sport. The heavy-handed and simplistic narrative in Remember the Titans may inspire good feelings for the short course of a ninety minute movie, but falls terribly short as a social polemic. The film’s relentless utopianism demonstrates that, even when drawing from a true story, Disney can’t resist telling (and selling) a fairy tale.