The scene looks like the boot camp episode that figures in countless war movies. In the dead quiet of night, young men are rudely roused from their sleep. Ordered to run their hearts out, they slip-slide across treacherous terrain, willing themselves not to collapse since they know that anyone who doesn't make it will be washed out. But this is a movie about the making of high school football players, not soldiers--more precisely, it's a film based on a true story of the making of an integrated football team amid the racial fire storm of Alexandria, Virginia, summer 1971, on the eve of the court-mandated desegregation of T.C. Williams High School.
During preseason training camp at Gettysburg College, black and white players have manned the racial barricades, coming together only to taunt or fight. That's the division their new coach, Herman Boone (Denzel Washington)--a black man hired in the wake of racial riots--means at all costs to break down. The night run ends abruptly at the fog-shrouded Gettysburg cemetery. A century earlier, Boone tells them, thousands of men died on that spot in a war over the soul of the nation. "They were fighting the same fight we're fighting among ourselves... . If we can't come together on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed."
That punch line reads hokey--it is hokey--yet in the context of the movie, it works. And so, remarkably, does Remember the Titans.
The film stitches together clichés with the skill of a crazy quilter. Young men find common ground across the classic American divides--recall the requisite WASP, Italian, Jewish, and farm-boy soldiers thrown together in dozens of World War II films, from The Sands of Iwo Jima to Saving Private Ryan. In the spirit of Hoosiers and Coach, a high school team overcomes impossible odds--an untested coach, a season-ending injury to the star player, wholesale cheating by the bad guys, carping within the ranks--to win the championship. In the self-contained world of high school, a young man is forced to choose between his old friends, now revealed as flawed, and the untrendy good guys--shades of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Racial brotherhood overcomes bigotry, as in Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights. In Remember the Titans, the stock characters of racial dramas--the loud-mouthed white bigot, the long-suffering wife of the black hero--make their requisite appearances, and so does the ur-prop of the civil rights era, the brick tossed through the window of the hero's family.
The movie celebrates these clichés, sometimes pushing them over the top--then turns them to another, quite different and special, purpose. Out of the daily struggle to achieve racial understanding on the gridiron, it constructs a new kind of patriotism whose anthem is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s grand dream.
To accomplish this in a way that's both believable and dramatic takes some doing. Integration is no longer on the nation's agenda--when was the last time either presidential candidate uttered the "I" word?--and today's movies about race reflect that lack of interest. The last major film about black and white adolescents, James Toback's Black and White, was a nasty piece of work that featured white rich kids who lusted after negritude, and blacks, less starry-eyed about their race, who lived for the hustle. Of course Jim Crow-style segregation was wrong, the prevailing line of thinking goes, but that's ancient history, an easy lesson long since learned. To hope for more than that--for a genuinely color-blind society--is simply foolishness.
Remember the Titans is a reminder of how much is misrepresented by that version of history--and therefore of possibility. For southern whites, overcoming the legacy of segregation meant rewriting all the scripts, re-casting the mindset; that kind of change is almost never the work of an instant. There's no epiphany scene in the film, no one moment when all the football players get the message, just the slow, painful business of negotiating this passage.
The white players greet the news that they have a black head coach by announcing a boycott; they're brought back only by the decision of their old coach, the about-to-be Hall of Famer Bill Yoast (Will Patton), to work for Boone. For some, racial hostility never ceases; one white lineman deliberately misses his assignment, leaving the black quarterback open to murderous assault. But others do change. Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst), the white captain who started summer camp unwilling to play alongside blacks, finds himself battling the prejudices of his girlfriend and his mother. In one of those moments that's both hokey and moving, a black player, Julius Campbell (Wood Harris), goes to the hospital to see Gerry, who has been paralyzed in a car accident. The two have gone from enemies to soulmates, and when the nurse tries to shoo Julius away--"only relatives are allowed"--Gerry cracks wise: "Don't you see the family resemblance? That's my brother." It's a cliché the kids know they're playing with--but it's also exactly what they mean.
For the adults, change comes much harder. Many remain unreconstructed segregationists who resort to dirty tricks in order to get rid of Coach Boone. As the team comes together, the game becomes a sanctuary--a way "to rule the universe, like Titans," as Coach Boone says--time out from the ugliness of a world where protestors carry placards reading "Mothers Against Busing" and where Boone is derided as "Coach Coon." It takes the better part of the season before Yoast, booted out of his head-coaching job in the name of racial amity, comes to terms with integration. Yoast is the most layered character in the movie; the evolution of his relationship with Boone shows in microcosm what racial distrust is made of and how it can be overcome.
This is satisfying drama of the old school--a two-hankie movie about integration--that aims at an audience for whom desegregation is so old it's new. Where the film falls down, it's not for courting that audience, but for underestimating it--as when the movie makers stoke up their heart-stirring music to crescendo annoyingly at the important points. Probably equally unnecessary are the characters with thoroughly modern points of view who are parachuted into the action. Coach Yoast's nine-year-old daughter Sheryl (Hayden Penettiere) is a football fiend who knows every play in the book; she's the avatar of women's liberation to come. A California teenager is dropped into the scene, a golden-haired hippie quarterback, quickly nicknamed Sunshine (Kip Pardue). He's unaffected by racial differences--California's supposedly beyond all that--and he plays around with gender-bending, driving his decidedly conventional white teammates crazy with intimations of pansexuality. Both the liberated nine-year-old and the Californian with the postmodern sensibility are anachronisms, years ahead of their time, on the set only to help the audience to connect the dots of prejudice.
The values underlying the story also come straight from our times. Boone as a father figure is a charter member of the school of tough love, and the players sometimes sound like they're right out of the corporate boardroom. "Attitude reflects leadership, Captain," is what Julius sneers at Gerry back when they still hate each other. Above all, winning is what counts--it's those victories, not the sight of a mixed-race squad coming out on the field in dance formation, that unites the community behind the Titans.
As the football season goes on, victory following victory, the team morphing into the darlings of the community, the film becomes more predictable. After all, there aren't many variations on the last-second, "Hail Mary" play that wins the state championship. Still, though the end is foreordained, the audience cheers on the Titans and the simple justice that they've come to represent. To be sure, in Alexandria as elsewhere, such victories are fragile and fleeting; American schools are more racially segregated today than they were in 1971; the very courts that made integration happen have now left the field. But if a movie that's aimed to reach a wide audience can get us to remember--in fact, to celebrate--that unfashionable, perhaps unreachable dream as our American dream, how much more can we ask of it? ¤