What movie drama these days isn't likened, however speciously, to something "real"? Reality TV has made "reality" cool.
"Pride," we are told in the opening credits, is inspired by true events. This is often a tip-off that the movie is going to take tremendous liberties with the facts. But the story of Jim Ellis, a schoolteacher who founded an African-American swim team in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood in the '70s, is sufficiently obscure to keep the fact police at bay. And anyway, it's just a movie.
It also happens to be a movie that utilizes the well-worn circuitry of dozens, nay hundreds, of other movies about doggedly dedicated teachers who overcome poverty and/or racism in order to improve the lives of their unruly students. "Stand and Deliver," "Lean on Me," "Remember the Titans," "We Are Marshall" – you name it. Whether this is all a case of life imitating art or vice versa matters little. Few of these movies aspire to art. What counts is the trajectory of uplift.
In this sense, "Pride" is a fairly good example of the genre. Ellis (Terence Howard) is first introduced to us as a high school college athlete who is roughed up at a swim meet because of his skin color. Ten years later, after graduating from college with an excellent record, he can't find work as a coach in a white school district, so he winds up refurbishing a recreation center slated for closure in the ironically named Nicetown section of Philadelphia.
With the assistance of the gruff but kindly custodian Elston (Bernie Mac), Ellis assembles the city's first black swim team from a group of novices who spend their afternoons razzing one other and shooting hoops. Ellis also goes through the ritual purification rites common to the genre. He must prove himself to the kids by beating the biggest loudmouth among them in a freestyle competition. Ellis wins so handily that, in record time, he shapes them for the upcoming state championships. But racism, in the form of his chief rival, the preppy Main Line team, once again intrudes. So does the local drug pusher, who sees a few of Ellis's swimmers as prey.
Ellis can't even get a fair shake from Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise), the city councilwoman who is also the older sister and guardian of one of Ellis's more troubled kids. She doesn't trust his idealism and thinks the training is a waste of time. (In other words, she's in love with him.)
All of which means that Ellis will prevail. For one thing, there would be no movie otherwise. We react to each of his setbacks with the full assurance that it is only temporary. We know, for example, that a showdown is coming between Ellis and the drug pusher, just as we know that he will end up dunking the perpetrator in the pool. Director Sunu Gonera and his screenwriters are so intent on impressing us with Ellis's uprightness that Ellis suffers – unduly, I think – for this lapse. This saint is supposed to hold his temper.
Howard gives a nuanced performance in a role that is rather two-dimensional. And, as a female colleague of mine said to me after the screening, "No male actor cries better than Terence Howard." Grade: B–
Sex/Nudity: 2 instances of innuendo. Violence: 3 scenes, including a brawl. Language: 23 profanities. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 2 scenes with cigarettes, 2 with alcohol.