Remember the Titans (2000)

D: Boaz Yakin
S: Denzel Washington, Will Patton

Formulaic but generally effective sports movie in which football becomes the conduit via which issues of race in American society are problematised. Based on the true story of High School coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington), the first African-American coach of a mixed race team, the script (by Gregory Allen Howard) pushes all the familiar buttons of the genre while working in its social and biographical material. Framed by a relatively pointless prologue and epilogue (pointless because the situation they are concerned with is much too abruptly introduced to make any impact), the story is mostly set in 1971 Virginia, where racial tensions are on high with the integration of the school system. Local star coach Will Patton is on the brink of an all-time high when Washington is introduced, initially as an assistant, then bumped up to head coach by political machinations behind the scenes. Antagonisms between the two men and the community behind them look like tearing the team apart. When Patton then relents and agrees to stay on, Washington begins not only to work his team into shape, but forces the boys to face their racial demons and work together as a unit.

It sounds worse than it is. Coming from the peculiar combination of the Walt Disney Company and Jerry Bruckheimer films, one might have expected utterly generic results with an inflated sense of its own self importance. Thankfully, Remember the Titans is generic, but in a good way. It knows the formula and moves swiftly through its requisites, drawing character and theme from the story in a believable fashion. It is about important issues, but it is not inflated, and though it pushes hard on the racial angle, this too seems to flow from the personalities and the action. Sincere performances from the leads help. Patton is quietly effective as the supplanted Bill Yoast (though he is performed off the screen by young Hayden Panettiere as his football-obsessed daughter). Washington (The Hurricane, Fallen) commands his usual attention in quite a low-key performance. Wood Harris and Ryan Hurst are standouts among the younger cast. They play a young men on opposite sides of the racial divide who eventually learn to respect one another, another generic cliché which does play all the cards of the buddy movie but again, like most other aspects, seems to work because of the writing and performances.

There's a general air of no-nonsense sincerity about the film which mirrors its central character's determination, and it serves the whole very well. Despite scenes of racist violence and prejudice which call to mind Washington's previous appearances (Malcolm X, The Hurricane), it is still a football movie though. The view of racial tension is filtered through the events on the field and in the locker room. Though canny enough to suggest that certain anxieties cannot be smoothed over and featuring moments where divisions seem poised to overcome good intentions, the ethic of the great American pass time eventually takes centre stage, with much gruff male bonding and gung-ho co-operative dialogue. It's a much milder portrait of the world than Oliver Stone's recent foray into the territory in Any Given Sunday, and less likely to appeal to an international audience. That said, the use of the feel-good formula means that it is ideal video fodder and will probably work across the true story and light entertainment niche markets. There is a bit more to it than that summation suggests, but in the final analysis it does rather fit neatly into those categories. Boaz Yakin keeps the action moving, the story holds attention, there's a solid mixture of lighter and darker moments (though it never gets particularly dark), and the movie is worth a look if you're of a mind to enjoy it. Gridiron flicks rarely go over well with an Irish audience of course, but it's bound to find its home in subsequent distribution.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.