Ahhhh sports movies. Unless you’re remaking ‘The Longest Yard’, Sports Movies are really hard to screw up. Can our hero score the touchdown on the last play? 3 balls, 2 strikes, bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded down by three, can our hero get the big hit? Clock is counting down to triple zero and down by a deuce, can our hero hit the big three to send our team to victory? We’ve had a quite few of these sports movies around lately, including a sixth Rocky, Glory Road, Remember the Titans, Coach Carter, Gridiron Gang, Miracle, Wimbledon, The Longest Yard… And with the exception of ‘The Longest Yard’ all of those movies, and more I haven’t mentioned, are all good to varying degrees. The one thing that those movies didn’t have in them was Terrance Howard who could very well be the best working actor Hollywood has to offer today. This logically leads us to the Lionsgate production of ‘Pride’, starring the great Terrance Howard with the sport today being competitive swimming. So today the question will be, ‘Can our heroes touch the wall?’ and will we enjoy watching them as they try to get it done?
When we first meet Jim Ellis (Howard), it is 1964 and he is preparing for a swim meet for his college of Cheney State. Being it is 1964 and being that Ellis is Black and the whole civil right movement is just getting rolling, the opposing schools refuse to participate if they allow Ellis in the pool. Ellis’ coach ignores this and puts the young man on the platform anyway. Things go from bad to worse as there is big ruckus, punches are thrown, a white cop is punched and Ellis we can assume is hauled of to jail.
Ten year later, we see Mr. Ellis again, now in Philadelphia and in desperate need of a job. Despite his degree and pedigree, the best they can offer the man is cleaning up a neglected youth center before they shut it down. Elston (Bernie Mac), the youth center
maintenance man isn’t too happy to see Ellis since this is first he’s heard of the center shutting down. Getting down to the business at hand, Ellis stumbles upon the long neglected pool in the youth center and sets about cleaning it up.
Outside the dilapidated youth center are some good hearted boys playing basketball and a low down two bit petty thug who runs the neighborhood. When the city takes down the rims, Ellis convinces boys to come play in the pool. One thing leads to another and soon Ellis is teaching the boys and one young lady along with his new found best friend, Elston the maintenance man, the finer arts of competitive swimming which leads to eventual meets, disappointment, frustration and eventually success. But will it be the ultimate success?
Now let us get the bad stuff out of the way of an otherwise fine film. ‘Pride’ is pretty much paint by numbers as far at these things go and I’m certain you’ve seen this film probably a good fifteen times before. They really do pull every cliché out of the book in this one. Will they save the youth center? You have ultra talented boy with crappy attitude if only Ellis can get through to him. You have the big hearted boy whose borderline retarded who you can bet will play some part in a hopefully glorious victory. You have the dedicated, somewhat troubled coach who is trying to save the kids, but it’s the kids who are really saving him. Since these kids are black in the 70’s, you GOTTA have evil, ignorant, racist white folks, and they are here aplenty. You also have the pretty girl (Kimberly Elise) who believes in the coach more than he believes in himself. We already discussed the no good evil drug dealer who will play some part in causing some kind of trouble later on in the proceedings, and naturally we have to have the melodramatic big race at the end. A word of warning; ‘Pride’ tries to yank tears from your eyes from the very first frame with all of the melodrama and soaring string music. I used to never cry at movies. When I saw E.T. in high school, I actually laughed when he froze and turned purple thinking what a tasty puddin’ pop E.T. would make. But now that I’m an old man, I cry all the time now. Now I don’t bawl like a bitch or anything, but I do a little choked up every once in a while. It was looking like, despite all of their great efforts, that ‘Pride’ was going to fail in that task, but damn if they finally didn’t get me. Bastards.
One more thing. I now it’s the seventies and that the white people in this movie are evil racist and all, but you would think after about thirtieth meet that these kids went to, white folks would actually STOP staring at them like they’re from mars and saying things such as ‘I didn’t know they could swim.’ Not being consciously aware during this time since I was like four, I can’t say with certainty that white people weren’t completely like that, but I sure hope not.
Now the good stuff. All of those clichés, and rehashed plot points and stuff you’ve seen a hundred times before? It all works as well here just about as good as it ever has. All of this centers completely off the performance of Terence Howard who not only gives a singular great performance and turns what could have been a caricature of Jim Ellis into a real live breathing, caring, flawed person, and he also raises the level of everyone around him. Bernie Mac’s Elston is far more than just a jester, though is funny, but is a real character with a history you can see and feel, even without being told what it is. The young actors playing the swimmers could have been shoehorned into certain categories, but they all find a way out of those categories to give you something to hold on to and root for. You know the routine. The kids suck, they get embarrassed, they rise up to the coaches surprise, they persevere. And though the outcome of the melodramatic big race showdown is fairly certain even before they rolled a single frame of film, director Sunu Gonera was still able to infuse it with enough drama, and shoot it with enough style that it will have you cheering at the end. The problem in characterization was the white people who were ALL insensitive racist assholes.
One last thing. Since ‘Pride’ took place in the 70’s, it had a nice 70’s soundtrack. Unfortunately for me, the woman I sat next to knew all the words to all the songs. Do YOU know the words to ‘Back Stabbers’? I do. ‘They smile in your face… all the time they wanna take your place the back stabbers…’ and so on… See? Did I sing the song out loud to let everyone in the theater know that I knew the words to ‘Back Stabbers’? No I Did Not! Why do they always sit these people next to me?
As derivative as ‘Pride’ may have been, you’re going to have a real hard time not being moved by the story. Hats off to Terence Howard who continues to give great performance after great performance, and hats off to ‘Pride’ as another fine example of a very good sports movie, proving that the genre is almost impossible to screw up. Unless you’re remaking ‘The Longest Yard’. Though I did love ‘The Waterboy’.