Coach Carter (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

While the outcome is obvious (generic rules apply), Jackson is sharp and relatively restrained.

Coach Carter

Director: Thomas Carter
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Rob Brown, Rick Gonzales, Vincent Laresca, Robert Ri'chard, Antwon Tanner, Ashanti
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 1969-12-31
Amazon affiliate
Are you some preacher man or some shit?
-- Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez), Coach Carter

When I first saw that contract, I was like, I'm not signing this. What are you gonna do for me? Are you gonna go to war for me?... If a fan threw a punch at me, are you gonna be the coach to come over there and help me or are you gonna be the coach to sit there and just watch?
-- Chris Dixon, Richmond Oiler, 1999, "Coach Carter: The Man Behind the Movie"

According to the documentary "Fast Break at Richmond High," the deft basketball choreography for Coach Carter emerged from a combination of actually good high school players, 12-hour-a-day drilling by coach and coordinator Mark Ellis, and innovative shots designed by DP Sharone Meir and editor Peter Berger. As producers Mike Tollin and Bruce Robbins reconstruct this scheme, the documentary intercuts energetic shots of the shoot as well as interviews with the young actors. The camera guys go flying over the court on elaborate rigs -- with wheels and cranes -- while Tollin notes that the effect is "really liberating and it's really exciting. And our feeling is, 'Let's shoot the action in ways that you can't really see watching a game at home on television.'" This fancy footage is devised by use of "about 75 great basketball players," also known as "special ability extras," culled from auditions around the U.S. All had to endure camp and choreography, what Robert Ri'chard calls "a grueling regimen."

But not so grueling as that endured by the actual student athletes under the auspices of Coach Ken Carter, whose story provides the basis for the film. As recounted in the new DVD's other major extra, a documentary titled "Coach Carter: The Man Behind the Movie," Ken Carter made life hard for his coachees. As indicated in testimonials by Samuel L. Jackson (who plays Carter in the film), Tollin, Carter himself, and Carter's real-life players, experiences at Richmond High School ran from exhilarating to exhausting. (Other extras, less major, included six deleted scenes and a video for Twista's "Hope," featuring Faith Evans.)

The film sets up a version of these experiences, recrafted to accommodate an inspiring sports-movie trajectory. When, in Coach Carter, the titular character first arrives at Richmond high School to take over the basketball team, the retiring coach looks relieved. And if Carter doesn't quite know what he's in for, you have a slight idea, because you know the Oilers' recent seasonal record is 4-22. They lack discipline, they're distracted, and they don't seen much reason to change. No matter. This is an underdogs sports movie. They will change.

Carter takes an approach that's part Lean on Me meets Hoosiers, part Stand and Deliver meets Friday Night Lights, and okay, maybe a little White Shadow, too. That is, he stands up to all the doubters -- including practical-minded Principal Garrison (Denise Dowse) -- and insists that "these kids" (all looking too old to be in high school) can not only be great ballers, but also have futures beyond a single winning season. He's got that ambition that all good teachers have in the movies, to salvage their charges' lives, to make a difference. He makes them sign contracts, saying they'll maintain 2.3 GPAs and wear suits on game days.

At first, no surprise, Carter's up against the old guard thinking: a couple of (very tall) team members quit, the others aren't immediately convinced that he's serious when he demands they do 500 push-ups at a time or run 1000 suicides (those runs up and down the gym, sneakers squeaking on every turn). And the parents just want their children to win basketball games, as they too presume that none has a chance at college or a career. Indeed, some players struggle with personal issues -- Worm (Antwon Tanner) brings attitude, Cruz (Rick Gonzales) has a dealer cousin (typecast Vincent Laresca) who expects loyalty, and Kenyon (Rob Brown, still high school balling, five years after Finding Forrester) doesn't know how to handle the news that girlfriend Kyra (Ashanti) is pregnant. Before you can say, "Gangsta's Paradise," Coach has motivated his team to focus on what's important -- winning.

While Coach's wife Tonya (Debbi Morgan) is wholly supportive and his loyal employee keeps the sporting goods store open, he does spend too much time at the gym. His hard-ass approach is by turns intimidating, enraging, and finally, inspiring for the boys, who go on to do what he knows they can do -- play like a team. They learn to share the ball, adapt to Coach's moves ("Everything I learned about basketball," he says, "I learned from women"), and protect one another. Carter's one, quite brief problem, has to do with his son Damien (Ri'chard), whom he believes is safely ensconced at the winningest high school in the area. But Damien wants to play for dad, and so he withdraws from St. Francis and enrolls at Richmond (and for some reason, dad, so rigid with everyone else, okays this idea), where he's ridiculed for wearing a tie and doing his homework. Dad refuses to "favor" him, but the kid is determined and the best clutch shooter, so he plays lots and runs up lots of points.

Per formula, however, the team can't just be winning. Coach Carter includes the obligatory melodrama too: when Coach kicks Junior Battle (Nana Gbewonyo) off the team for not going to class, the kid's mom pleads for a second chance ("I want him to play for you," she says, big eyes irresistible). Carter keeps waiting for the teachers' reports on his team members' progress in class -- waiting and waiting. Then he finds that the reason for no reports is twofold (the teachers aren't into policing their students and the players aren't going to class), and decides to punish everyone: he locks up the gym and cancels games, inciting outrage everywhere (this is the primary innovation by real-life Carter, apparently, as he and Jackson have discussed it repeatedly in interviews). The players revolt (tepidly, as in, "This is bullshit!"), Cruz hits the streets with his malevolent cousin, national media pick up the story (providing a cameo for Bob Costas), and the school board votes to restart the games, Carter or no Carter.

While the outcome is obvious (generic rules apply), Jackson is sharp and relatively restrained, and Mark Schwahn and John Gatins' script makes an effort to complicate the characters, despite the conventional situations and stereotypes (watch out for the Asian kid who doesn't speak a complete sentence, but appears repeatedly, looking enthusiastic in multiple team shots, usually on the bench at games: the token Better Luck Tomorrow took apart persists, apparently unconsidered). Even Ashanti holds her own. But all these good efforts can't overcome Coach Carter's essential banality.

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