“Glory Road” is an air ball — a sappy, overwrought narrative of college basketball’s first all-black starting lineup that overcame long odds and overt racism to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship in 1966.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a documentary-style film of the event. It’s a cleaned-up version in which director James Gartner and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“Remember the Titans”) manage to turn one of the most important and captivating stories in sports into an instantly forgettable, underdog-coach-and-ragtag-team formula film.
Josh Lucas (“A Beautiful Mind,” “American Psycho”) plays Don Haskins, a girls’ basketball coach who gets a new gig at Texas Western College, a small mining school. He subsequently recruits a gaggle of talented but raw teens who weren’t recruited by big-name schools because of skin color or otherwise.
The coach not only harnesses and refines their game, he teaches them life lessons in the process. Ho-hum.
The most egregious cliche here is the ol’ tale of a white man righting the ship for a wayward black man. Replace Mr. Lucas and basketball courts with Matthew McConaughey and courtrooms, and it would be “A Time to Kill.”
Like Mr. McConaughey’s lawyer character in that film, Mr. Lucas and his wife (Emily Deschanel of Fox TV’s “Bones”) catch flak for cavorting with blacks, receiving hate mail and sly remarks from other whites at every turn. But Coach Haskins hangs tough. After all, the implications of a black team succeeding are far bigger than he, he realizes.
At one point, he tells a player, “You quit now, and you’ll be quitting every day for the rest of your life.” Inspiring.
“Glory Road” plays up the racial tension to the hilt. Racially charged slurs and assaults abound, including a slightly jarring bathroom scene.
And the Confederate flags waving behind the Kentucky bench during the championship game? Subtle, fellas. As if the audience wouldn’t suspect the racial tension from the epithets smeared in blood on the walls of the black players’ motel rooms.
To be fair, the film isn’t totally without redeeming qualities. It does bring the significance of the team to the attention of the general public, who may have been unaware of what they accomplished.
And Jon Voight — who gets the task of playing Adolph Rupp, the infamous and legendary head coach for the all-white University of Kentucky team — actually deserves credit for slightly humanizing the prickly Mr. Rupp, who may or may not have been a segregationist, depending on who is talking.
Those less cynical will probably enjoy the movie. But it feels sanitized, even for Disney. Everything wraps up too neatly, as if the team’s triumph instantly ended the bigotry and racism they and other black athletes faced.
Maybe that’s the way things happen in the Magic Kingdom, but in reality racism in American athletics was far more deep-rooted and persistent than this feel-good family film suggests. It’s a serious subject. It deserves a serious film.
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Tarron Lively is the deputy editor of the Continuous News Desk.
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