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Ham-Fisted 'Titans'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2000


    'Remember the Titans' Denzel Washington plays a football coach in an unrecognizable Alexandria. (Walt Disney)
Out on the sidewalk after a recent screening of "Remember the Titans," a new "fact-based" football melodrama set in Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School in 1971, an audience member was overheard to say, "Alexandria's going to be real [ticked] off about this!"

With good reason.

Set during the dawn of the Northern Virginia city's attempt to integrate its school system, the film purportedly tells the story of Herman Boone, in real life the T.C. Williams Titans' first black football coach, and his heroic efforts to forge a championship team by forcing detente down the throats of the warring white and African American players. Cutting to the chase, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced, Boaz Yakin-directed white guilt trip wastes no time presenting a picture of 1971 Alexandria as a racist backwater with a population of country music-lovin', y'all-drawlin' crackers so virulently anti-black it will make the D.C. suburb virtually unrecognizable to those who live there today. I'm not saying there wasn't racial tension, but to this D.C. native (whose vision of his across-the-river neighbor may have been clouded by the ivory tower of his integrated private high school in Northeast Washington), Alexandria looks like the Deep South.

"Our boys aren't playin' for some Coach Coon!" sputters a vein-popping, apoplectic cousin of Bull Connor in this Birmingham-on-the-Potomac, upon learning that politely stoic new arrival Boone (the always dignified Denzel Washington) has been hired over the longtime Coach Yoast (Will Patton set on a low boil), an angry but basically fair-minded Caucasian who's ready to walk rather than suffer the indignity of the assistant coaching slot, that is until his white players tell him they won't hit the field without him. Yoast stays, of course, in the subordinate position, and the mutual respect, friendship and yadda yadda yadda that over the course of the season evolve out of his and Boone's initial mistrust is a wondrous thing to behold. In reality, Boone and Yoast remain fast friends to this day, even if the Disney-fied over-simplification of their assuredly complex relationship is enough to make you gag. Now, I don't mean to sound like I'm against peace, love and understanding, happy endings, male bonding or tales of uplift and personal redemption, but I get a bad taste in my mouth when I'm force-fed the pap in a broth of swelling strings, stirring martial rat-a-tat-tats and dubious pseudo-sociologizing about the ability of sport to bring races and nations together. I get enough of that propaganda from the Olympics.

Furthermore, the Boone-Yoast rapprochement isn't even the main point of the story-heck, it would have been a better movie if it were. "Titans" is less concerned with that fairly grown-up sub-plot than it is with showing us a surly bunch of black and white teenage jocks learning to open cans of whup-ass, not on each other as it turns out, but on their opponents, a perennial favorite of Hollywood storytellers regardless of their heroes' skin colors.

The young actors who play the Titans are all fine, by the way, particularly Ryan Hurst and Wood Harris as sworn enemies-turned-best friends Gerry Bertier and Julius Campbell (otherwise known as the main white kid and the main black kid). So are Washington and Patton, for that matter, given what they have to work with in the bathos of Gregory Allen Howard's mawkish script, which never met a moral it couldn't club you over the head with. The long-suffering, heroic black players are all portrayed as decent (if understandably angry given the atmosphere of overt hostility), but with few flaws that might flesh out or sully their characters' purity as symbols in the civil rights struggle. The white players, on the other hand, range from the villainous to the buffoonish to the saintly.

"Remember the Titans" is a feel-good movie only in the sense that it wants to reassure today's white people about our own enlightenment and how far we've come in the evolution of our attitudes about race. If the bigoted pigs (and I have no doubt there were many, both white and black) inhabiting this mythical Alexandria of three decades ago were more contradictory, more real, instead of some hick caricatures, the message of the story might have become too complicated. As it is, it's a fairy tale.

Deep down, however, "Titans" just wants to win-our hearts and our self-congratulatory tears-without consideration as to how the game (or the film) is played. In that sense, it's just another manipulative football movie, with balletic slo-mo of athletes slamming into one another over the sounds of beef being sledge-hammered, and all of this as a metaphor for spiritual growth. Toss it in the bin along with "The Replacements," but give it bonus points, at least, for having a social conscience.

Remember the Titans (PG, 113 minutes) – Contains a fistfight and racial hostility.


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