Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor
ports movies tend to be about a lot of things besides sports - relationships, personal courage, the acquisition of skill, and teamwork.
"Passing Glory" (TNT, Sunday, Feb. 21, 8-10 p.m.) is a winning, modest human drama about individual worth, about the Civil Rights movement as it affected impressionable high school kids, and about the courage to change.
And, yes, it is also about basketball.
Produced by Quincy Jones, David Salzman, and Magic Johnson, the film is sure to find a wide audience among the coveted young male demographic. Wonderful performances by Andre Braugher and Rip Torn as father figures in the segregated black high school and young Sean Squire as the hero basketball player, Travis Porter, make it a class act.
Based on teleplay writer Harold Sylvester's real-life experience, the story concerns a young man's battle to change his world. His was the first all-black high school in New Orleans to play basketball against an all-white team. In real life, Mr. Sylvester became the first black athlete to play basketball for Tulane University.
"The movie has layers of messages," says Sylvester. "It is very much about relationships - the battles come from all directions."
"When I found out the project was about basketball," says "Hoop Dreams" maker, director Steve James, "I said 'no.' I was concerned that making another basketball picture wasn't the smart thing to do. But I read the script and really liked it, and saw it was about a lot more than basketball. The best sports movies aren't really about sports. What interested me most about this script was the relationships - between fathers and sons, mentors and students, and the young men."
Sylvester had been visiting a friend in New Orleans in 1989 to help promote a project that involved giving video cameras to inner-city kids to make films, when someone asked about a secret game he had heard about for 25 years. That secret game, between a black basketball team and a white team that had been forbidden to play each other, suddenly became important again.
In less than a year, Sylvester had put together a screenplay. "I had been writing since 1975, but those screenplays had never been produced - they were horrible. But in 1990, it was a case of the good opportunity meeting preparedness - it was a good story, and I was ready to write it."
Meeting with producers Magic Johnson and Quincy Jones, director James realized that the script itself was not subject to the same old formulas.
"A lot of times movies that deal with civil rights set up white folks as consummate evil and black folks as pure victims of white evil," James says. "And in this film, while you do see the evil of white racism, you also see that there were lots of white people fighting for change. Like the white high school athlete - at first you think he's just a chip off the old [racist] block. But he isn't really. By the end of the film there is respect between him and [the main character] Travis. The white basketball player is brave - he defies his father."
Sylvester played basketball against a white team five days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on Feb. 26, 1965. "Things are different now - it was really an apartheid situation back then," he says. "There are still battles to be fought, and we have to continue to chip away, chip away, chip away at racism."
He studied drama at Tulane. As the first black athlete to play basketball for the school, he had to overcome great difficulties and face hostility every day. Yet there is no bitterness in his reflections about the period.
"I could see in the white kids' eyes that they were victims of the system, too," he says. "They hated it, too. Many of those kids were children of white separatists. They were indoctrinated, they weren't allowed any kind of choice.... I have always hoped that the film would have a calming and healing effect rather than raising hateful emotions. It is not about blaming anybody - it is about revealing the facts."