In the opening scene of “Remember the Titans,” viewers see police officers clashing with mobs of protesters in Alexandria, Virginia beneath a faint subtitle reading “July 1971.” As viewers are told, the killing of a Black teenager at the hands of a white store owner elicited political unrest, escalating tensions between outwardly racist white individuals and the heartbroken, fueled Black community.
Almost 50 years later, not much has changed (roll subtitle “July 2020”): Social justice for Black lives remains ever necessary today as it was back then, as Black lives continue to be slain, stolen by senseless violence and unaccountable perpetrators. Yet, nearly half a century later, many of us enjoy films such as “Remember the Titans,” not because we seek to learn more about the social tensions in the early 1970s, but because they bring us back to our high school glory days, when coaches would fire up an “inspirational sports movie” to complement plates of pasta the night before a big playoff game. They remain the only sliver of sports we have left as a second wave of COVID-19 threatens the return of basketball, baseball and every level of athletics in between.
And while I, too, have a soft spot for these feel-good, underdogs-beat-the-odds-to-come-out-on-top movies, the unnerving number of flaws tarnishing these films — the white savior trope, inaccuracies and their repercussions — must be acknowledged.
There are plenty of sports films out there that can be, and have been, critiqued for their racial insensitivity or plots that deviate from the “extraordinary true story” off which they’re based (“42,” “Cool Runnings” and “Hardball” come to mind). While this list is by no means extensive, several films serve to remind us of sports and racial justice’s intersections and should be examined more closely: the textbook white savior narrative of “The Blind Side,” the good-intentioned, almost-there follow-through in “McFarland, USA” and the deceivingly smooth racial integration of Alexandria, Virginia’s education system in “Remember the Titans.”
“The Blind Side”
“The Blind Side,” released in 2009 and having grossed more than $300 million since, has rightfully been pinned among the “Top 5 Most Cringeworthy White Savior Films.” Based on the narrative of former NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) and his inspiring journey from homelessness to NCAA All-American, “The Blind Side” takes what’s his and makes it that of Leigh Anne Tuohy, Sandra Bullock’s character. A white, wealthy woman from Memphis, Tennessee, Tuohy sees Oher wandering the streets in a T-shirt and shorts on a cold, rainy night and brings him back to her home. She soon becomes his legal guardian after realizing Oher was homeless, and provides him the resources — for better or worse — to attend college on an athletic scholarship.
What is most troubling about this film, to Oher himself’s disgust, is its revision of the truth, which belittles Oher’s competency and allows Tuohy to steal the show. Rather than center the story around Oher’s resilience, the number of Black families that fostered him as he navigated through high school or his self-motivation to enhance his football abilities by organizing informal leagues, complete with playoffs games, in his neighborhood, “The Blind Side” focuses the plot elsewhere altogether. The film completely invents Tuohy and Oher’s beginning and depicts Oher as Tuohy’s project — Michael, or “Big Mike,” is portrayed as a helpless, almost illiterate subject with little to say.
Framed from Tuohy’s perspective, we see her “good deed” pivot around the “risks” she was willing to take by letting an estranged Black man into her home, traveling with Michael to the “other side of town” to buy him clothes from the store he likes and standing up to her god-awful, racist friends about her decision. Tuohy even gets the credit for transforming him from a soft, incompentent football player to the league’s best with an inauthentic speech about Michael protecting his teammates like they’re family.
“People look at me, and they take things away from me because of a movie. They don’t really see the skills and the kind of player I am,” Oher told ESPN in 2015.
Did I mention Bullock won an Oscar for best actress in a leading role over talented Black actress Gabourey Sidibe of Lee Daniels’ “Precious,” arguably as a result of media attention and praise for her newfound role, which was unlike any of the lighthearted characters in rom-coms Bullock was best known for prior to “The Blind Side”? Yikes.
Whether it’s the movie’s stereotyping of the inner city Black individuals as aimless, violent drug addicts, its inexplicable obsession with “Indian” headdresses, its neglect to expand on Oher’s success both in college and the NFL or its negligible attempt to even address racism at all, “The Blind Side” is a glaring personal foul by director John Lee Hancock on Oher that demands a greater penalty than 15 yards and an automatic first down.
Off the bat, “McFarland, USA” seems like another piece of white savior cinema. Kevin Costner stars as Jim White — who is indeed white — an ex-football coach who unwillfully ends up at McFarland High School in California, only to turn seven of Central Valley’s poor, Mexican farmworkers into a California state championship cross-country team.
While the storyline does follow the narrative of a white person coming in to improve the lives of nonwhite people, which might otherwise have continued unimproved, Disney’s “McFarland, USA” honorably differs from films such as “The Blind Side” in a number of instances. First, White both acknowledges his privilege and apologizes for his previous stereotyped assumptions. He recognizes that the kids are already talented and disciplined, rather than turning them from “nothing to something,” as is the case in many sports classics.
“There is a kind of privilege that someone like me takes for granted,” White admits in the film after joining his runners for an early, grueling morning of picking in the cabbage field.
Director Niki Caro’s “McFarland, USA” also succeeds in how it celebrates McFarland as a community, not a mere setting. Rather than a wealthy, white figure throwing money at the town’s “problems,” members of McFarland come together to raise money for new jerseys and running shoes through car washes and enchilada sales. Viewers also see cultural aspects of the community members in the quinceanera they beautifully arrange for White’s daughter, Julie.
However, while “McFarland, USA” does challenge the white savior-esque storyline, it’s still largely a story about Jim White, not his runners. Even star team members Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) and David Diaz (Rafael Martinez) lack personality, the film barely skimming the surface of their home lives and their history. Viewers feel pity for Julie after she’s injured during a gang encounter, yet don’t learn the fate of Javi, team member Victor Puentes’ uncle, who is wheeled into the back of an ambulance after suffering what appears to be a much more gory wound in the same scene. Instead, we see White scold him as the ambulance departs, yelling, “I trusted you with my daughter!”
Although the film is an admirable attempt to depict a heartwarming story out of one of California’s poorest farm towns, “McFarland, USA” is far from perfect.
“Remember the Titans”
Last, but most certainly not least, we return to “Remember the Titans.” The critique of this film is tricky, as it appears to highlight the racial tension in old Virginia and see a town of both Black and white citizens come together in support of their undefeated high school football team. Denzel Washington stars as Herman Boone, head coach of T.C. Williams High School’s football squad, who is hired over a white coach shortly after the school combines previously segregated Black and white high schools from the area. Additionally, Black characters receive a large amount of the screen time — so where does the film go wrong?
Where “Remember the Titans” missteps is, perhaps, a bit more subtle.
Though a narration primarily only occurs in the opening and closing scenes, the story is ultimately told through the eyes of Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere), daughter of white coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton). Spectators witness much of her upbringing — what’s a viewer not to love about a coach’s 9-year-old daughter with French braids who is obsessed with football? — and little of Boone’s. The audience sees Black men eyeing white, female students on the first day of the integrated high school, actions that only perpetuate the sickening stereotype that white women fall victim to their Black, male counterparts.
Much like how Tuohy receives credit for Oher’s talent on the football field in “The Blind Side,” Boone’s success is seemingly only possible through Yoast’s sacrifice. Yoast sacrificed his spot in the Virginia High School Hall of Fame to let Boone keep his head coaching position even after Yoast was given a chance to take it back. Yoast gets to play good cop, while Boone gets the bad cop role during camp. Boone is portrayed as ruthless and unforgiving, as he stretches the players to their wits’ end in preparation for the season. Yoast even saves the day in the Northern Virginia regional championship game by personally addressing the referees’ biases, which otherwise would have cost the Titans the game.
What may be the film’s biggest flaw of all is its lack of effort to dig deep into the South’s racial tension during the time the movie takes place. While we do get a glimpse of the aforementioned protests against racial injustice in the community, the storyline makes it seem like the team, whose successful integration at camp leads it to an unprecedented season, magically unites the town, ridding it of its rooted racism. Black players are called monkeys, and mom jokes by white players go as far as to ask Black players if they even “have one,” but these initial racist remarks are quickly smoothed over by team unity.
The most realistic depiction of such racial tension is when a brick is shot through a window of Boone’s home — however, it becomes a scene quickly seemingly brushed over and forgotten. Yet, viewers get ample screen time of the community showing sympathy for white, paralyzed player Gerry Bertier and his grieving mother when racism has paralyzed Black Americans for centuries. While this may have been modeled to emphasize these differences, what does a young kid watching this film learn about race? That Black men love singing Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”?
Clearly, there ain’t no movie — yet — savvy enough to rightfully combine people of color and sport, and in a sportless time marked by still ever-present racial injustice, we could certainly use one. While you shouldn’t feel guilty watching “The Blind Side,” “McFarland, USA” or “Remember the Titans,” you must be mindful. Acknowledge where and how your favorites fall short.