Winning a Future
Towering over everything and everyone else, Samuel L. Jackson owns the screen in Coach Carter. His intense, dynamic presence lifts this film above the usual sports movie and makes it one to remember. Jackson immerses himself completely in the role of Ken Carter, a real coach who taught his high school basketball team there are more important things in life than winning a game.
“I had a very short list of actors who I’d like to see portray me,” says Carter. “Samuel L. Jackson was the only name on it.” After seeing this film, I know why.
Facing hostile parents, uncooperative teachers and the wrath of the community, Carter refused to let his winning 1999 Richmond High Oilers (a team including his own son) play any more games until they lived up to the contract they signed -- an agreement to maintain a 2.30 grade point average, attend class regularly and sit in the front row. Carter even padlocked the gym to make sure no basketball activities could take place. And he told his players to meet him in -- shock -- the library. “Where is the library?” asks one surprised student.
“My idea was to substitute books for balls -- as simple as that,” Carter explains. Defending his reasoning behind the controversial contract, Carter says the document was used to prevent players from falling through the cracks and to make them responsible for their future
“This is definitely not your typical story and Ken Carter is not your typical guy,” Jackson declares. “Both the story and Ken are about teaching young people to expect more from themselves and to see beyond their present.”
As a former teacher and school administrator, I applaud the important message of this movie, but I’m skeptical about its depiction of teachers as reluctant to give progress reports on the team members in their classes because “It’s too much extra work.” In my experience, most teachers would be happy to help students improve their academic work, especially school athletes.
My only other quibble about the film involves its anti-climactic last basketball match. The rest of the games are exciting to watch, thanks to Mark Ellis of Reel Sports who served as the movie’s basketball coordinator. “These kids worked nonstop for months to ensure the believability of the game sequences and I believe all their hard work and practice really paid off,” Ellis declares.
Directed by Thomas Carter, who’s no relation to Ken Carter, Coach Carter depicts the players’ home environment as realistically as its basketball sequences. In 1999, the Richmond, California, area concerned was a run-down, low income community -- and the movie definitely gave me a feeling of “being there.”
Kudos also to the young actors portraying Coach Carter’s diverse group of team members. Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) stands out as a key player conflicted about his girlfriend’s (Ashanti) pregnancy, and Rich Gonzalez (Biker Boyz) is immensely watchable as the “tough guy” seduced by peer pressure and the drug culture.
Because it takes on so many educational and social issues, Coach Carter is an extremely ambitious film. And that’s probably exactly what the real Ken Carter wanted.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “PG-13” for violence, sexual content, language, teen partying and some drug material.)
Read Diana Saenger's ReelTalk feature article, "Talking with the Real Coach Carter."