I was prepared to resist the documentary “Undefeated,” Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary, because I’ve pretty much reached the breaking point on movies about come-from-behind sports teams. Plus, in its subject matter, this one seemed too close to “The Blind Side,” a movie I found more problematic in its racial attitudes than inspirational.
“Undefeated” is hard to resist, though, and for all the right reasons. It’s about Memphis’s hapless Manassas High School football team, which, in its 110-year history, has never won a playoff game. After six seasons, leading up to 2009, coach Bill Courtney has finally produced a contender through sheer guts and fortitude. Courtney is white and his players are all African-American. After a while, this fact no longer matters. What does matter is the extraordinary empathy Courtney experiences with the kids, who treat him with respect even when he is lambasting them.
Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, the codirectors, focus on Courtney, who runs a lumber company and has four kids of his own whom he fears he is neglecting, and on three of the players: Chavis Daniels, a gifted athlete with severe anger-management issues; Montrail “Money” Brown, an offensive lineman and top student; and O.C. Brown, an imposing right tackle who needs tutoring to make his grades. When O.C. temporarily moves into the upscale suburban home of his tutor, he marvels at the early-morning joggers and remarks that, in his own neighborhood, “They’d think I’d be running from the police.”
I wish the directors had emphasized more of the players' personal lives apart from the football field. But, in the end, this is a documentary about Courtney and the transformative powers of caring. He works wonders on his players and they reciprocate. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some language.)