Title: Glory Road
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Director: James Gartner
Screenwriters: Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois
Starring: Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Austin Nichols
Glory Road really does tell a remarkable true story, one more powerful and important than the sort of prototypical racial integration tale we were spoonfed in, say, Remember the Titans, if only because of its ultimate ramifications on the game of basketball, college athletics, and higher education. Though any film tackling this subject would probably be beholden, at least somewhat, to underdog sports movie conventions, the potential is here for something stirring and strong. But Glory Road, given to a rookie director and screenwriter, botches it embarrassingly. Glib, trite and incompetent, the movie reduces much of the story to set-ups and punchlines and expects us to cheer without earning so much as a clap.
The film gets most of the easy things right, and the emotional resonance of certain moments might fool one into thinking that the entire thing was written and put together with some measure of skill. But consider the parts that work. We see a black boy beaten to a bloody pulp in a restaurant bathroom, and his teammates trying to track down and kill the perpetrators in a rage, with their coach trying to stop them. We see a trashed motel room, with the words “Nigger Go Home” smeared on the walls in red paint that looks like blood. We see the defiance of basketball coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), who believes in the largely black team he recruited at a time when starting more than two blacks was unheard of in the NCAA. These things are wrenching and powerful by their very nature; to neuter them would require a force of a magnitude that this movie cannot wield.
Then consider what doesn’t work. In its rush to get to its supposedly rousing sports montage last act, the film must plow through the new recruits’ arrival at Texas Western, their assimilation (or lack thereof) into the fold, their training, their academic reformation, their gradual acceptance of and respect for Coach Haskins and his strict rules, etc. It’s a handful, but Glory Road doesn’t want to deal with any of it. As such, it treats important, potentially explosive events as “bits.” Example: one of the black students gets into a confrontation with a cafeteria worker, who offers him nacho, taco or burrito, and he responds “no, I’m looking for hot dog-o.” Irritated, the worker repeats, in threatening tones, “Nacho. Taco. Burrito.” The student again replies “No, hot dog-o.” Interested to learn what happens next? So was I. But the film cuts away at the pivotal moment, as it does on several other occasions. (Administrator: “We just hope to put a decent team on the court; Coach Haskins: “Well, decent doesn’t cut it with me.” Cut.)
These scenes, which could have been exciting, triumphant, sad, essential, are just fodder for a quick chuckle or the reinforcement of convention. Meanwhile, the Glory Road goes through the motions of training, Coach Haskins’ infallible method of “fundamental basketball,” and his diabolical schemes to make his players stand up and be men, damn it. In a shamelessly ludicrous sequence, he kicks out a player for playing like a sissy. He does this by charging into his room and starting to empty the boy’s closets throwing his belongings into suitcases; he then meaningfully hands him his ticket home. The next day, of course, the player proves his worth by taking some rough hits on the court and, when his nose is smashed, coming back in a football helmet (I am not making this up). Of course, he is then allowed to stay, but all I could think of was that the ticket seems an awful waste of money for a school on such a tight budget.
Josh Lucas tries hard in an earnest performance — he is not slumming. But all the film can think to do with him is have him shout a list encouragements and admonitions from courtside (which he does with gusto, to his credit) and then edit them randomly into the basketball action. And of course, we must necessarily have announcers comment on every play so that we don’t get confused — a familiar ploy for filmmakers incapable of cutting together a competent sports sequence. The sports action is punctuated by arbitrary developments — the team rises and falls at regular intervals as the plot requires. Conflicts begin and end unprompted, precisely when they need to. A dawn arrives so that the next problem can rear its head.
Films like Coach Carter and The Greatest Game Ever Played demonstrated just last year that most of the conventions that Glory Road tries to marshal are still alive, well and at filmmakers’ disposal. This film fails not because it is conventional, but because it is lazy and dumb — unworthy of its subject matter. There are so many similar movies out there. Find a better one.