January 29, 2005 -- “Coach Carter” is an inspiring, based-on-fact movie about one school's struggle between sports and academics. The whole struggle is based on a common misconception, that the path to the American Dream for inner city kids is best achieved by pursuing excellence in sports rather than academic study. In fact, the reverse is true. More kids who choose study become successful than those who pursue a career in professional sports, including student-athletes.
Samuel L. Jackson (“SWAT”) stars as coach Ken Carter, the film's central figure and lightning rod in a storm of controversy. Carter, a successful sporting goods store owner, responds to the request of an old friend to take over the coaching duties at Richmond High School in California, where he was a star basketball player 30 years ago. He doesn't need the job, its low pay and long hours, but he wants to make a difference in the lives of the players. To that end, Carter requires each player who wants to be on the team, and his parents, to sign a contract. The contract states that each player must attend all of his classes, must wear a tie on game day, must sit in the front row of classes and must maintain a grade point average of 2.3 (C+).
Some players refuse to sign the contract and walk off the team. Some parents and school administrators question the contract since it requires players to maintain a higher grade point average than is required of student athletes under California law. One player eager to sign the contract is Carter's son, Damien (Robert Ri'chard), who plays basketball for another high school. Against his father's wishes, he transfers to Richmond High to play for his father.
The players and coach eventually come to an understanding and the team gets off to a hot start. The team is undefeated, but the coach is disturbed to find out the players aren't living up to the contracts they signed. They are skipping classes and getting poor grades. He padlocks the gymnasium and cancels games. He tells the players they will not play again until every team member catches up on class assignments and their grade averages improve to 2.3. This sets off a firestorm of controversy. Parents, teachers, alumni, basketball fans and the school board are all opposed to Coach Carter's stand.
This movie shows us the seamy underbelly of academics in the United States and its unholy alliance with athletics. This film gives us an opposing view of athletics to that shown in most sports movies, including the fine recent film, “Friday Night Lights,” where playing high school football is shown as the highlight of a student's whole life. “Coach Carter” rejects that notion, portraying high school basketball as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Carter teaches his players that they if they study, they can use their basketball skills, combined with their academic skills, to get a college scholarship. That, in turn, can lift them up out of the crime and squalor of the ghetto.
This film paints a very bleak picture of academics. In it, teachers complain about the extra work required by Carter, who demands academic status reports on his players. Many people in the school system seem more concerned about the won-loss record of the basketball team than whether or not the players are learning anything. Some of the basketball players can barely read. Teachers allow athletes to skip classes. They act as if they don't care if the student athletes learn anything.
Some critics have panned this film because it uses so many sports clichés, like the “big game” at the end, for instance. The problem with that criticism is that it fails to take into account that this isn't a typical sports movie at all. This movie is about how other things in life are more important that sports, education for example. A typical sports movie perpetuates the myth that sports builds character. Often, the opposite is true. Sports prevents boys from becoming men by insulating them from the consequences of their actions. Athletes are often put above the law. They don't have to play by the academic rules that apply to others. Their crimes are covered up and their victims paid off. All of this has disastrous consequences to their character development.
In “Coach Carter,” many of these young players become men, not because they demonstrate proficiency at basketball, but because they learn the importance of study. They become men because they earn respect by keeping the promise they made to their coach. These players become men because they demonstrate a level of honor and commitment lacking in their teachers and parents. This is no run-of-the-mill sports movie, it that rarity of rarities, a film that explores the real dividing line between boys and men.
The acting is excellent by Jackson and the others. The basketball scenes, expertly filmed by Sharon Meir (“Mean Creek”) and edited by Peter E. Berger (“Like Mike”) are really well-staged. This film captures lifelike basketball games better than “Friday Night Lights” captured football games. Its basketball scenes are far superior to those in “Hoosiers.” It helped that the scenes featured a lot of players who are very skilled. Yet the best scenes in “Coach Carter” are not basketball scenes, they have to do with the very special relationship between a coach and his players. I did not shed a tear for “Million Dollar Baby,” but “Coach Carter” got to me. This film rates a B+.
For more information on this film, including the film (synopsis, production notes), cast and crew, game, soundtrack, video clips, image gallery, desktops and AIM icons, click on this link to the official home page of Coach Carter.