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USA 2011
Directed by
Dan Lindsay / T. J. Martin
109 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Good documentaries need good subject matter, and often, good luck. Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin deserve credit for sniffing out a good story brewing on Tennessee’s Manassas High School's football fields but they also got lucky as the turn of events fits remarkably well with the familiar rising-from-the-ashes dramatic form of the sports film (there is even a direct parallel with the plot of 2009’s The Blind Side),  Whether the result deserved the 2012 Best Documentary Oscar is debatable but Undefeated is a revealing, moving and well-crafted documentary with a story and characters as compelling as any feature film.

The ashes are the impoverished black-populated streets of North Memphis with its chronic unemployment and endemic social problems. In the classic manner The Manassas High School football team is made of black youths from broken homes for whom sport offers their only escape from the ghetto. Much as Hoop Dreams did with basketball Undefeated focuses on a couple of the kids: Montrail ‘Money’ Brown and O. C. Brown and, no doubt not to entirely similar, throws into the mix Chavis Daniels, who has just finished a year in juvenile reform and is back to complete his senior education.

What Undefeated has that Hoop Dreams didn’t is volunteer coach Bill Courtney, a man with a flair for persuasion and a passionate commitment to his charges. Courtney, who has his own story to tell, adds a rich vein to the proceedings as he struggles to get through to kids for whom giving up is a way of life. He is a remarkable figure  - very much an ordinary guy but, one feels, exemplary of the best of American society – generous, good-neighbourly and imbued with a faith in Providence. Indeed Undefeated has much that can be read as a portrait of contemporary America at least in the South - the poverty, the violence, the divide between the rich and poor and not least of all - endemic obesity.

In many ways you've seen Undefeated before in any number of sports films, but seeing it in real life is so much better.




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