Undefeated tells the story of Coach Bill Courtney during his sixth year as volunteer coach for the small Memphis football team at Manassas High School. While the Oscar-winning documentary is not without its problems, it has a ton of heart, and it will leave you thinking about its message long after the final credits roll.
The theme of the film is character, illuminated by a line that Coach Courtney imprints upon his team throughout the film, “The character of a man is not measured in how he handles his wins, but in how he handles his failures.” It’s a true testament to Coach Courtney’s character, as he seems more proud of his team in their losses than he does in their victories (no, the title Undefeated does not refer to the team’s record at the end of the football season).
It is clear from the beginning of the film that Manassas Football does not have a history of success (since the school opened its doors in 1899, the football team has not won a single playoff game). On top of that, because the school has such little money, and not enough interest to generate any kind of booster program, larger and much better teams would pay them a few thousand dollars to drive hours to come play them and get slaughtered). You want to talk about setting up an underdog story?
Three members of the team are focused on primarily, each with extremely different personalities, backgrounds, and futures. Intelligent and studious Montrail “Money” Brown, enormous and not necessarily the sharpest cleat in the locker room O.C. Brown, and troubled soul Chavis Daniels are each examined and followed throughout the film. It is really the mixture of their personalities and their interactions with Coach Courtney that give the film its heart.
An example of this can be seen in the relationship between Money and Chavis. Chavis, who is returning to Manassas after spending a year in jail, is shown as a troubled young man with a grim foreseeable future if he does not get his act together. There is a scene near the beginning of the film in which Chavis starts a fight with the very likeable Money Brown for basically sitting next to him during a team meeting. There is a later scene, after Chavis finally has turned himself around, in which he gives a speech in front of the team at how Money has inspired him throughout the season and has shown him what true character is all about. This scene is earned, and is touching, and is almost straight out of a narrative movie. The filmmakers understand the rule: 1. Show two people who hate and disrespect each other. 2. Show the same two people now loving and respecting each other. 3. Evoke a strong emotional response from the audience.
The other subplots of the film, such as O.C. Brown being taken in by a wealthy white family (it’s hard not to compare it to The Blind Side), are handled with just the right touch and without a heavy-handed sentimentality. The other important focus is Bill Courtney’s relationship with his family. Even though this relationship is hardly seen during the film, it is because of Courtney’s family background (his father left when he was just four years old) and his relationship with his own children and wife that he can be such an influence on the young men on his team. Courtney is depicted as a man with extraordinary character, and it is clear that he lives for this character to be instilled not only upon his team, but upon his children, as well.
Filmmaker Daniel Lindsay has really created a fantastic character study with this film. It is a film about people with dim futures and dark pasts that rise above it all to become something better. While the film is not perfect (there are scenes that seem redundant at times, and the slow and measured pacing might have you checking your watch a few times), it is absolutely worth seeing. It will leave you thinking about it when it is over, and it will ingrain in you the true meaning of character in the face of failure.
Movie Review by Mike Danner