Everyone’s a Winner

A story of underdogs craving a big victory, ‘Undefeated’ winds up with a prize of its own


Players for the Manassas Tigers prepare for a game.

Co-directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin were more than a little nervous last week. “I think ‘freaked-out’ is an understatement,” Martin said just days before the Oscars. “Last night, I was up rehearsing my speech in my head, even though it’s not going to happen.”

It happened. Martin and Lindsay’s documentary “Undefeated,” which opens locally Friday, took home the Academy Award for best documentary on Sunday.

The film centers primarily on Bill Courtney, who for six years volunteered as the football coach at Manassas High School in inner-city Memphis. When he joined, the team was flat-out terrible, and was funded by checks from bigger, better schools that paid Manassas to come and get creamed by their teams. In 2009, the year the film takes place, the goal of the much-improved team is to win the first football playoff game in the school’s history.

The racial differences between the coach, who is white, and the entirely African-American team are surprisingly not a focus of the film. “We don’t bring up race, because it wasn’t a factor for the players or for Bill,” Lindsay said. “It wasn’t talked about. I like the fact that at the end of the film, [player] O.C. [Brown] and Bill hug, and that’s purely a relationship between a coach and a player. I hope people aren’t bringing more to the fact that Bill is white and O.C. is black.”

The socioeconomic differences between Courtney and his players lend the film some powerful images. During filming, O.C. Brown lived part time with an assistant coach in Collierville, a suburb of Memphis; a local newspaper story about his situation is what caught the filmmakers’ attention in the first place. The visual transition from his grandmother’s tiny house to the coach’s McMansion among tree-lined streets with sidewalks is an arresting one. “The fact that this is in the same city,” says Martin. “That this is the same community, within a matter of 10 to 15 miles — it’s a night-and-day different social experience. To see that disparity always blew my mind.”

“It was shocking to see that,” Lindsay says. “And that was very important to us, that we construct the film in a way that the audience would be shocked, too.”

Still, the film doesn’t rage against income inequality or offer solutions to fix systemic economic disparity. “We are not advocacy filmmakers,” Lindsay says. “We want to tell good stories.”

A Quiet Moment Of Uplift

When Bill Courtney, the high school coach who’s one of the main subjects of “Undefeated,” finishes cheering for his son’s peewee football team, he does what most dads do: He puts his son’s helmet in his shoulder pads and carries the gear off the field for his kid.

In ‘Undefeated,” Courtney reminisces about watching other kids’ dads do just that for them during his own youth football days. His own dad wasn’t around then, and he had to tote his own helmet and pads. It’s for this reason that one fleeting image in the film — of Courtney heading to the car after his son’s game, equipment in hand — carries so much weight. When Courtney saw the finished film, “that was the one scene I lost control on,” he says. “I just bawled.”

The documentary shows Bill shouting, praying, joking and cursing, but he says that moment might be the film’s most intimate one. “That’s me and my son,” he says. “Thirty years from now, my son will forget how many tackles he made in that game; he won’t remember the score. But he’ll know his father was with him and carried his equipment with him because he loved him.”

Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; opens Fri., $8-$11; 301-652-7273. (Bethesda)
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Stephen M. Deusner · February 29, 2012