Feb. 16, 2013
Undefeated is an
excellent documentary about the football team at Manassas High School in North
Memphis, Tennessee. But don’t worry – you don’t have to love football to love
this film. You probably don’t even need to like football. This film is really
about overcoming obstacles, working together toward a common goal, and rising
above one’s set of circumstances. The idea is that your dreams are not
necessarily out of reach, although there is plenty of heartbreak and trouble
along the way. As a former NFL player tells the team early on, “You gotta think
outside your circumstances.”
This is a team in an underfunded system, a team that has
always lost, once having a season record of 0-10. They play in an area that is
basically poor. The plant that supplied most of the families with jobs closed,
and so a lot of folks moved out. (There are several shots of boarded up houses
during the opening credit sequence.) This film documents one season in which
the team attempts to do what the school had never done before – win a play-off
The film starts with the team’s coach, Bill Courtney,
listing off players who have been shot and are no longer in school; also, another
player was arrested, and this was all within two weeks. And yet he tells them, “This
is our season – I don’t care what happens.” The film takes us through the
entire season, starting with the first day of practice.
Before their second game, there is a talk of a planned
fight after this district game. At the half, Manassas is down, 20-0. The
players are obviously down as well. Bill Courtney tells them optimistically, “This
is an unbelievably good opportunity.”
And the team does manage to come back in the second half. As incredible
as that is, the footage after the game is even more intense. Because of the
worry of a fight, the cops stop the teams from shaking hands. And you realize
just how serious things are. The celebration of the victory juxtaposed with
very real concern of the police for the team’s safety is a seriously engaging
moment in the film. And this film is full of such moments.
The team’s coaches are all volunteers. The head coach, Bill Courtney, began
volunteering six years before this film was shot. His first year there, the
team won four games, so they were no longer the worst team in the state. Bill Courtney says, “You think football
builds character, which it does not. Football reveals character.” Bill can
relate to these kids because his own father left when he was four years old.
Not only does Courtney coach these kids, but he has to solve problems among
teammates (and in doing so, he misses his own son’s first game).
Besides the coaches, the film focuses on several of the
team’s key players. O.C. is a senior, and plays left tackle. He lives with his
grandmother, and sees football as his way out. When O.C.’s grades slip he moves
into coach Mike Ray’s house, because tutors wouldn’t go to O.C.’s house.
Seriously. These are kids who really care, who are trying to make it, who are
putting in the effort. And these are coaches who go way beyond simply teaching
them how to play the game.
Montrail (AKA “Money”) is also a senior, and plays right
tackle. He is small for the position, but mentally tough. Money’s is one of the
more heartbreaking (and ultimately heartwarming) story lines in this film. He is
injured, and is unable to play for the rest of the season. The footage of him
hearing the news from his doctor is intense. Again, you come to really care for
The film also focuses on Chavis, a junior linebacker who
returns to school after serving fifteen months in a youth penitentiary. He gets
into fights with other players, and is suspended from team rather than kicked
One of the elements of this story that I found
fascinating was how they funded the football program. They used to play what
were called pay games, where the team would be bused out to another school, and
as Courtney says, “They’d beat our ass,
they’d give us a check, and send us back on our way. And those five or six
games would raise fifteen to twenty thousand dollars and that’s what would fund
the football program.” The problem with that, of course, is then when you got
to your district games, your kids were already beat up and defeated. So they
started Manrise, a program to raise money.
directed and edited by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin.
This DVD has some good bonus material. There is a
commentary track with directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin. There are six
deleted scenes, including stuff with Joaquin, a player who spent most of his teen
years in foster care. It must have been a tough decision to cut this footage
from the film.
The Making Of
Undefeated (8 ˝ minutes) includes
interviews with Bill Courtney, Dan Lindsay, TJ Martin and Sean Combs. (Combs is
one of the executive producers.) Dan Lindsay talks about how the idea for the
documentary began with a newspaper article about O.C. He and TJ Martin talk
about their experience at the Academy Awards too.
And there is a black and white teaser trailer.
scheduled to be released on DVD and Blu-ray on February 19, 2013.