| March 21, 2007

Pride is based on the real-life story of Jim Ellis, a man who created a competitive swim team in 1974 in the middle of a rough black neighborhood in Philadelphia. Terrence Howard portrays Ellis, a man forced to accept a job preparing the decaying Public Department of Recreation in Nicetown, PA, for demolition when he is rejected for a teaching position at an elite white school. Joined by Bernie Mac as Elston, the building’s head of maintenance, Ellis recruits and trains six teens as swimmers and ends up taking them all the way to Nationals.
Do they win? Do you have any doubt about the answer to that question? Pride offers few surprises or anything new, really. Yet what it does offer is a fine, restrained performance by Howard and a group of really attractive and likeable kids. Plus, Pride is packed so full of sincere, sappy moments that only the coldest of individuals wouldn’t be moved at some point.
The film opens with a strong scene depicting a young Ellis attempting to compete in an all-white swimming meet. His white coach encourages Ellis to defy those that attempt to bar him from racing, but when the gun goes off and Ellis dives in, he discovers that he is alone in the pool, surrounded by a booing white crowd. This heartbreaking and frightening moment is a brutal reminder of the cruelty of segregation.
Unfortunately, it is the film’s strongest commentary on race. Tom Arnold plays “The Bink,” the white coach of the school that rejects Ellis’s teaching application. His racism is polite but cheap, wielding every dirty trick to assert a power already granted by society. Ellis shies from The Bink, taught by a youthful indiscretion that there is no victory possible in attacking the white power structure through physical violence. Yet he rarely addresses racism with his team. When The Bink wimps out on a planned meet with the PDR team (the screenplay never explains how the white school’s participation was arranged in the first place), Ellis tells his team that he doesn’t have to explain to them why The Bink’s team has walked out. In this silence, novice director Sunu Gonera overlooks an opportunity to face the pain of hatred directly. As a result, racism exists in the movie as a vague but ever present smell in the air, like rotting garbage.
The year in which the film takes place, 1974, is only six years after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. The screenplay, credited to Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe, and Norman Vance, Jr. (Smith and Gozzard appear to be first-time screenwriters, perhaps explaining the writing by committee) avoids any direct reference to the Civil Rights Movement and maintains a firm divide between the world of the whites and the world of the blacks. The cast of young men, led by the striking Kevin Phillips as team captain Andre, act completely naïve when faced with their first encounter with a large white crowd. An entire history of persecution and lynching evaporates as the film oversimplifies historic oppression and makes cartoons of its Caucasian villains.
Not that the black world of Nicetown doesn’t offer its own cast of African American villains. But here, too, the screenplay is decidedly indistinct in its creation of menace. Ever-present shady bad guy Franklin (Gary Anthony Sturgis) stalks the teens, waiting to lure them into his line of work (a vague host of bad guy duties including drugs and prostitution). Ellis appears to be the first man to stand up to Franklin, but the conflict between them is never fully resolved. There is no police presence (of the beneficent or antagonistic nature) in Nicetown. Evil when diluted in this way may be less threatening to audiences, but the film loses tension in the process.
The young actors are believable in their camaraderie but less so in their casual conversation. Every single one of them appears to be a virgin, and their dialogue about sex is laughable in its naïvete. None of them smoke (only bad guy Franklin smokes–that’s how we know he is a bad guy), and though we hear that one young man skips school, nobody directly challenges him about his daily activities. Novice director Sunu Gonera works overtime to assure audiences that this group of young black men are completely innocent. Yet characters tend to become rather boring when they have no flaws.
Luckily Terrence Howard has a flaw, but even this flaw is explained away by the film. His temper, which got him arrested for hitting a cop after the swim meet incident in his youth, flares once again when Franklin and Co. trash the community center. Ellis brutally beats the three bad guys and then regrets setting a bad example for the kids. He imposes a self-exile upon himself during the National Finals, suspending his coaching duties. Like Moses refusing to enter the Promised Land, Ellis remains outside of the building during the entirety of the competition. A man this good is hard to relate to.
Bernie Mac creates an intriguing character in his defeated janitor, who spends his days and nights alone within the community center. How did he end up in charge of the PDR building, and why has he allowed it to fall into this state of disrepair? What is his relationship with City Councilwoman Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise), whom he feels owes him a favor or two? Gonera suggests a past between Davis and Elston, but he opts to explore a love relationship between Ellis and Davis instead. Ellis’ journey does not require a love story, though. His battle is with his past, and he defeats his own weaknesses in helping the kids achieve what racism prevented him from achieving.
Howard delivers many an inspiration speech, of course. But despite their predictability, Howard brings an authentic emotion to every speech. His transformation of Public Department of Recreation to “Pride, Determination, and Resilience” resonates deeply, and you can’t help but root for the coach and his kids. Gonera inflicts a full assault on audience emotion through music, dramatic editing, exciting underwater shots, and the power of Howard to drag a tear from every member of the audience. And it works. Pride has enough heart and, yes, blatant cheese, to turn any cynic into a believer.

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