October 5, 2000

Tackling the Racial Divide

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Race relations have never been a particularly stable aspect of American culture, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. Still, there were examples of harmony, even in the nascent stages of racial acceptance. Remember the Titans, about an Alexandria, Virginia football team and their 1971 season, is drawn from a true, yet little-known example of unity and achievement in the face of racism and related adversaries.

The story centers around the T. C. Williams High School football team, which is being integrated for the first time. The previously all-white team, with a white coach, now has a number of black students attending “their” school, and trying out for “their” football team. And causing outrage in the white T. C. Williams fans is the replacement of their beloved Coach Yoast (Will Patton), with a black coach, an outsider referred to as Coach Boon (Denzel Washington).

Football is life in Virginia — and with the introduction of integration, life has been turned on its head. Coach Boon has the Atlas-esque task of uniting a football team and its staff, which is deeply divided along racial lines. At the same time, he is also trying to gain the acceptance of a community that does not trust him, and turn out a state championship team.

A motley crew of student-athletes make up the new team, and the film shows the progression of unity and achievement both on and off the field. Though initially adversarial towards each other, the players, coaches, and community eventually develop amicable and respect-driven bonds. One such bond develops between two star defensive players: Ryan Hurst (Gary Bertier), a white player, and “Big Ju” (Wood Harris), a black player. In spite of numerous obstacles, the two players become best friends. A major strength of the film is seen in such interactions.

Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Coach Boon is likewise effective and moving, filled with locker room speeches reminiscent of Lombardi pep talks, the actions of a family man dealing with racism, and varied interactions with his players and staff.

However, the film often teeters on the fence between thought provocation, and the overkill of clich