*Remember the Titans (PG)
Walt Disney Pictures
There are two areas of our society where the color line between black and white has been breached fairly successfully: the military and sports. Both havens of machismo, both areas of physical prowess, both the subject of many Hollywood films. No surprise, then, that Remember the Titans lays on the militarism as much as the athleticism in its reenactment of a true story racial desegregation. With the same swelling violins usually reserved for war films, Remember the Titans glorifies youth, manhood and the pursuit of football as the best avenue for social justice.
The field of justice is, in this case, an Alexandria, Va. high school ordered to desegregate in 1971. To emphasize the desegregation order, the school board hires a black man, Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) to coach their successful Titans football team. Boone takes the place of Coach Yoast (Will Patton), a popular coach headed for the high school football hall of fame, who stays on as assistant to make sure that "his" boys (read: his white boys) get a fair shake.
What Boone and Yoast must do, once they begin to trust one another, is to turn a bunch of racist white boys and defensive black boys into a real football team. Boone's approach to this is deliberate and practically fascistic -- he takes them to football camp then he works them like they were in Marine boot camp with one, two, then three hard practices per day until they shape up and start working together. Included in his bag of tricks is a middle-of-the-night run in their Skivvies that ends up at the battlefield of Gettysburg, where he delivers an impassioned sermon about the men who died over black and white in the battlefield.
Could anyone but Denzel Washington deliver such a corny speech comparing the bloody deaths of tens of thousands of men with a desegregating football team without making you want to run screaming from the theater? Probably not. As usual, Washington manages to hit just the right note, here and throughout the film, that helps redeem a fairly cheeseball script and bring out its nobility. Other notable performances include the white team captain Bertier (Ryan Hurst) and Big Ju (Wood Harris) who becomes Bertier's best friend. As with the best military movies, this buddy relationship becomes the emotional center of the film, redeeming the body-slamming, crashing, growling men with true male friendship.
Remember the Titans is an entertaining film with a strong moral center (and despite the cussing by the coaches, it is safe to take your kids to this one). It helps if you have a little understanding of football to know what they're talking about with this strategy or that, as well as some tolerance for watching 16-, 17- and 18-year-old bodies slamming into each other without mercy. Ouch. It also helps if you're willing to believe that the struggle against racism is best fought by men (the few women in the film have a combined total of about 10 lines) on the model of a war. Whether the male/war model contributes to lasting change ... well, maybe, maybe not. But war makes for good un-nuanced drama, and Remember the Titans takes full advantage of that.