“Remember character and discipline” - Bill Courtney
Undefeated is the Academy Award-winning documentary directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J Martin, which chronicles the incredible turnaround of the Tigers, the all-black Manassas High School football team, during one of their recent seasons. Set against the backdrop of the football season in Memphis, this remarkable documentary follows some genuine heroes – three under privileged student-athletes who play as part of the Tigers, and their volunteer coach, Bill Courtney. Undefeated won Best Documentary Feature at the 2011 Academy Awards, a surprising victory at the time, but one very well deserved.
Ever since it has been founded in 1899, Manassas High School in North Memphis has never seen the Tigers win a playoff game. The usually last placed Tigers have had many a season without winning a single game and even gone as far as travelling to local schools for sponsored games, being pummeled to give that school an easy win and receive their funding for the next season. But that funding doesn’t go far, with the team having to utilize ill-equipped facilities, and rely on Coach Courtney’s business and fundraising.
The school is located in an impoverished area, with most of the team coming from broken homes, finding themselves in trouble, (one of them, Chavis, returns to the team during his Junior year having spent time in a juvenile correctional facility), receiving poor grades and fighting with one another during practice. Things began to change in 2004 when Courtney, a middle aged white man with a wife and four children, took over the team and saw a bright future that no one else did.
Now in his sixth season – having improved the team each year – and facing the loss of his two most important Seniors: Money, the team’s toughest and most spirited player, very intelligent and set to be a college graduate; and O.C, a superb athlete sure to have a career in the big leagues but can’t make his grades, wants to utilize the best team he has ever had at his disposal to take them to playoffs and win a game there.
While the entire team is the focus here, it is Courtney, Money, O.C and Chavis who we follow the closest, and their heartfelt individual stories are extraordinary. I don't want to reveal what happens, because some of what transpires will rock you to your core. Chavis' realisation that he has the skills to be a key member of this squad, despite picking fights with teammates and coaches and losing his temper, is truly a magnificent sight to behold. What Money goes through, and how his teammates support him, is what life is all about.
Undefeated cinematically, is dynamic viewing, with Lindsay and Martin effectively utilising stylistic devices to liven up the montages and give the images extra energy. This film, while about football - and what exhilarating and beautifully filmed/edited coverage of the Tigers matches we are privileged to - is about the human beings under the helmets and it is great that Lindsay and Martin never lose sight of that. Courtney surrenders all of his heart and soul for the team, enforcing not just the discipline and physical training, but psychological and emotional tutoring, mental health support and above all, character building and drawing out their tenacity, their heart, their will to win and the desire to make something of their lives beyond the season and football.
Not unexpectedly, I got wholeheartedly into Undefeated, a riveting documentary about overcoming adversity, division and under privilege to soar when it matters the most. It transcends the game of football and becomes about the strength of the human spirit and the path you take in life. Last year at the Sydney Film Festival it was Senna that brought me to tears. This year it is Undefeated. Just goes to shows the power that can be found in real human stories.
My Rating: ★★★★1/2