Remember the Titans, directed by Boaz Yakin and written by Gregory Allen Howard, is another in the seemingly endless parade of Hollywood’s self-congratulatory retellings of the civil rights story of the 1960s. Combining it with a classic (not to say clichéic) football story about a high school team’s undefeated season makes the pill of sanctimoniousness go down more easily, but it is hard to forget that we are being led through some very familiar paces. It shouldn’t be necessary to add (but probably is) that one doesn’t object to the civil rights movement itself, or regret even such modest successes as that recorded in this film, but that that one does object, rather, to Hollywood’s boringly incessant triumphalism about the one and only moral battle in the last 40 years in which it has been on the right side.
In its favor, you have to say that the movie adds some new and interesting ingredients to the familiar stew. The basic story, said to be more or less true, tells of how a black coach, Herman Boone (Denzel Washington), is placed in charge of the formerly all-white T.C. Williams High School “Titans” of Alexandria, Virginia — and of their white coach, Bill Yoast (Will Patton) with the integration of the school in 1971. Of course the idea is that everybody learns not only to live together in harmony but also how to open up a can of whup-ass on the other all-white teams in the Titans’ conference. Why they remain all white while Williams is integrated is not explained.
It’s not the first time we have heard either the racial or the football story, but the combination of the two adds a modest increment of novelty, and there are one or two other touching or amusing additions to the story — a high school athlete crippled in a car crash on the one hand and the divorced Coach Yoast’s football-mad nine year old daughter on the other. There is also a not quite forthright or well-worked out debate about the role of toughness versus compassion in high school football coaching. Of course this debate is naturally going to be pretty far down the list of priorities and probably fudged over in a film whose whole point is to celebrate the virtues of toleration and compassion.
This points up the film’s greatest weakness, which is the odd miscasting of Denzel Washington as Coach Boone. Obviously this kind of white self-congratulation calls for a pretty unthreatening kind of black guy as the one who breaks the color barrier, but if Denzel is ideal in this respect, it is equally obvious that Boone himself was not. He’s the kind of guy who says to a player on the point of exhaustion and asking for water: “Water is for cowards!” — and proceeds to order him back to his calisthenics. Nowadays, he’d probably be fired (if not put in jail) for thus endangering the life or health of a player, but when Coach Yoast warns him that “There’s a fine line between tough and crazy, and you’re flirting with it,” it clashes with the evidence of our eyes. Crazy? Denzel? Nah! He always looks like the least crazy man you could ever hope to meet.
On the plus side are the excellent performances of young Hayden Panettiere as the tomboy Sheryl Yost, who terrifies the much more ladylike daughter of Coach Boone, and Ryan Hurst as the team’s captain and star lineman, the high school All-American Gary Bertier. As the team’s natural leader, most of the real work of integrating the team’s hostile white and black elements falls to him and his black counterpart, Big Julius (Wood Harris). Both of these players, but particularly Mr. Hurst, do a fine job of showing us what it is to learn about decency and tolerance themselves at the same time that they are charged with instilling these qualities into others.
To add to this simple and dignified portrayal the tragic business of the car-crash may seem to some like over-egging the pudding, but a film like this is really only made for those with the stomach for such eggy richness. The emotionally fastidious are going to find the newly “soul” -full Titans’ triumphal progress through the hitherto lily-white world of Virginia high school football more than a little bit over the top in any case. But if you go in for a certain amount of moral self-congratulation and are susceptible to heart-warming stories of hard work and striving and decency and clean living being rewarded with the palm of victory, you may well want to see this movie.