PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Denzel Washington is a good and noble figure. Being one requires dedication and integrity, not to mention opportunity (not every aspiring role model can afford to turn down the second-rate parts when he’s trying to get seen or get paid). For most of his career, however from St. Elsewhere to Mo’ Better Blues to Glory to Malcolm X to He Got Game Washington has selected roles that stake out a certain recognizable moral ground, even if that ground is occasionally slippery. Off screen, he’s famously professional and gracious, self-assured and principled. On screen, he’s well-beloved and respected (Virtuosity notwithstanding) for only taking parts based on some basic rules of image-maintenance (for instance, no kissing men or sleeping with white women). He’s so consistent and so honorable that you feel familiar with him, like you can depend on him. Denzel. You don’t even need to say his last name.
Still, some eyebrows went up when Washington signed up for Remember the Titans, a high school football movie to be produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer. This seemed a one-two punch destined to result in a helmet-smashing-car-chasing-cheerleading-happily-ending cheeseball-hybrid. While promoting the film, Washington has been asked repeatedly why he took the part of Coach Herman Boone, the first black head coach for Alexandria, Virginia’s newly integrated T.C. Williams High School Titans, circa 1971. And he has answered that he wanted to do a movie he didn’t have to carry, as he had last year’s Hurricane, where pressures extended even beyond playing Rubin Carter as he ages over decades. The post-release demands must have been equally grueling, what with awards expectations, industry racism, and controversies concerning the film’s rewriting of actual events. How ironic then, that Remember the Titans though on its surface a standard sports-feel-good movie, in which Denzel plays a version of Gene Hackman, imparting crucial life lessons to adolescent boys also promulgates historical revisionism. This irony is exacerbated by the fact that director Boaz Yakin’s trademark earnestness amply demonstrated in his two previous films, Fresh and A Price Above Rubies is here reduced to making some meager emotional sense of Gregory Allen Howard’s by-the-numbers “rousing” screenplay, where winning high school football games amounts to moral victory over the evil forces of racism.
Opening with those oh-so-ominous words, “Based on a True Story,” Remember the Titans proceeds to designate the good, bad, and confused characters who will interact during its course. Coach Boone arrives in Alexandria from North Carolina in order to take the Head Coaching gig at T.C. Williams (in real life, he’d already been aan assistant coach at T.C. Williams for a couple of years), so mandated by a racist school board, who secretly assumes and hopes he’ll lose a game so they can fire him immediately. You have access to this information, as does Coach Boone, but he keeps it to himself, so you know how noble he is. He has a difficult time of it in Alexandria proper, where parents are picketing the school and his neighbors are peering through their Symbolic Window Blinds at the moving truck and his pretty family, two young daughters in dresses and wife Carol (Nicole Ari Parker, who has maybe two lines in the film, both encouraging her noble husband to do the right thing, which he does). Once Boone meets the Head Coach he’s replacing, Coach Yoast (Will Patton) and the white boys who don’t want to be playing with “animals” (as they call their black teammates), the stakes are pretty clear. Boone puts it this way: “I came here to win.”
To this end, Coach takes his team—all rage and resistance, initially dividing themselves into white and black busses—on a bonding exercise, specifically, two weeks in the Virginia woods for a rigorous baby boot camp. The players including local boys Julian (Wood Harris), Gary Bertier (Ryan Hurst), Petey (Donald Faison), and Rev (Craig Kurtwood), and a newcomer from California they call Sunshine (Kip Pardue) because he has long hair, speaks surfer-dude, and has smoked dope all fall in. Boone makes them eat and room together, even interview one another so they get a sense of their shared “human” backgrounds. To illustrate their progress, the movie features cute, Disneyish scenes here: a white yokel-boy plays country music for his horrified black roommate; surfer-boy kisses one of the tougher black players in the locker room, a moment that briefly exacerbates and then quickly dispels tensions, because all the boys can identify with the black player’s anxiety over that move; and Yoast’s football-obsessed nine-year-old daughter Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere) gives Boone a piece of her precocious little mind.
Running alongside these comic getting-to-know-you moments are the tense ones, which usually take place on the field, as the boys bash heads and Coach Boone yells in their faces (my favorite: “You must be outside your mind!”) and makes them do 5,000 push-ups and run 25 miles in the dark and the rain until they reach a Civil War battlefield, where they visualize the corpses and blood flowing over the field, and compare those old battle scenes to their current ones. It’s a dramatic moment and it works. All this difficult training accomplishes its mission: pain makes you stronger, in two steps: 1) you’re mad as hell at Coach, so you’ll take sides with your fellow players against him, and 2) you’re grateful to Coach for showing you the light. I’m guessing this is noble psychology. The kids take their lessons to heart, and return to town all fired up to beat every opponent down. It’s instructive that the other teams and coaches are all white and on occasion, visibly racist, so that the good guys in this equation are never in doubt. And when a racist white guy on the Titans makes trouble, another white kid who’s been converted takes him on.
As obvious and melodramatic as it is, Remember the Titans also exemplifies the increasingly subtle and insidious processes of Disneyfication. Given the heavy advertising for the film during televised sports events—for example, Monday Night Football—over the past few weeks, I hardly need mention that Disney owns ABC, ESPN, and a number of professional sports organizations. Disney’s very nicely laid out website for the film reminds you that “History is written by the winners” (who, in this instance, happen to be not racists), and offers links to ESPN, a Coaches Challenge (in which you enter the name of your favorite coach for a contest, which does not promise to make a movie out of his or her life), and not so legible footage of the old, real Titans in action. The website, like the movie, encourages you to believe that football is vehicle for social and political change (in 1971, no less, in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War activities). By the same token, even if you grant the narrative convention which is, after all, a pop cultural staple that male bonding is often a route to tolerance, in this case, that route is undermined by all the neat plot-tricks that make the result look awfully small-world-after-all-ish. One of the white players, Gary, bonds big time with one of the black ones, Julius, and the saga of their friendship provides a kind of roadmap for everything else that goes on. When Gary’s girlfriend refuses to shake Julius’s hand, he dumps her in favor of Julius. When Gary is paralyzed in a car accident just before the Big Game, he asks to see Julius while he lies broken and miserable in his hospital bed. Julius (who is, by the way, runner-up for most noble character in the film, and beautifully played by Wood Harris) and Gary’s racist mom even reconcile over this tragedy. And so on.
All of this is not to say that the goal of Remember the Titans is not worthy or that the shrewd show-bizzy techniques are not effective. This is a slick, smart movie, and it gets the job done. It’s helped in this effort by the considerable press that’s been afforded to its opening and the fact that President Clinton thinks it’s a great model for righteous behavior, one which inspires him to put an end to “all the fighting in the world.” To spread the word, the filmmaking team (including Bruckheimer, Washington, screenwriter Howard, and Disney Chairman Peter Schneider) have joined up with the real life Coaches Boone and Yoast, to make “appearances” and give interviews (usually in five or six minute bites). In DC, this impressive array of talent held a press conference with Representative J.C. Watts, Jr. (whose relevance to the proceedings might be attributed to the following facts, in no particular order: he’s House Republican Conference Chairman, he used to play football, he’s black). If you need further proof that Disneyfication is the future, take note that at the film’s DC razzle-dazzle premiere (Alexandria is nearby, so the local story factor looms huge), two special guests made the local news: the aforementioned President and Denzel. Judging by the responses from the young people lined up outside the theater, Denzel is the more effective inspiration. And I can’t think of a better man for that job.