Movies often portray inner-city turmoil as caused by cycles of violence — systematic injustice breeding anger that manifests itself again and again in otherwise decent people, sending their communities into a downward spiral. The most interesting aspect of Pride is this thesis as manifested in the main character, a talented high school swimmer who hit a cop in a fit of rage during an attempt to eject him from a meet because of his race; years later, having returned to Philadelphia and converted a collapsing rec center into a home for a group of kids who will learn valuable life lessons (“Pride — Determination — Resilience”) through swimming, he nearly sends the whole operation crashing down by again lashing out in brutal violence against a local drug posse that threatens his new charges.
It’s a compelling notion, and one that allows for a fair bit of nuance: had Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) remained a paragon of righteousness, it would have been easy to blame the drug dealer leeches and their ilk for the characters’ (and — why not? — society’s) problems and call it a day. By making its protagonist unwilling or unable to turn the other cheek, the aptly titled Pride draws its milieu in shades of gray. By making that unwillingness perfectly understandable, it makes the solution still harder to pin down.
Unfortunately, the movie still kind of sucks. It fails altogether to make the objects of Jim’s efforts — the b-ball-playing-punks-turned-breaststroking-virtuosos — believable or worthy of the adulation and affection that the film heaps on them. Some of the problem is in the casting, since under no circumstances are any of the actors in question anywhere near high school age, but Pride largely falls into a familiar inspirational teacher movie trap: it tries its best to make the teacher into a person, but is content to leave the students as mere stand-ins, subjects, concepts. We see Ellis risk life and limb to rescue Andre (Kevin Phillips) from the drug pusher’s grip, but there’s no sense that this is about Andre in any way; we’re meant to gape wide-eyed at Ellis’ heroism. Later, Ellis intones, “I believe in them so much; there’s so much they can do,” but the movie doesn’t even try to make us believe this.
First-time director Sunu Gonera and his battalion of screenwriters also have a beginner’s flair for ruining nice moments with sickly-sweet excess. At one point, the mean-spirited team of white kids, coached by the smarmy Tom Arnold, refuses to compete at the rec center meet, and the way our heroes initially handle this is courageous, dignified, and right — until the film decides to take the scene to the next inspirational-sports-movie level and spin out something cheesy, implausible, with a rotten aftertaste. The “big moments” here are the worst.
The same sort of disappointing dynamic appears again in the final scenes. The climax begins promisingly, with Ellis banished outside of the pool and the kids — finally — having to take the lead. Ellis’ nervous, helpless pacing adds a layer of suspense that would otherwise be missing from the generic proceedings, at least until Pride busts out the “biggest heart” clichés and concludes in the most banally victorious manner possible.
The end credits run over shots of the real Jim Ellis, still doing his thing in inner-city Philly. Even in this poorly-made, disappointing film, he comes off as interesting, with a good heart under a gloss of fiery impatience. Pride seems fascinated with him too, but to the exclusion of everything else that would have made it a worthwhile rendition of the formula. Too bad.