“Undefeated,” which won the Oscar for best documentary last Sunday and opens locally Friday, is the kind of documentary I recommend to people who don’t particularly like documentaries.
It’s the story of a high school football team in inner-city Memphis coached by a white volunteer named Bill Courtney. “Undefeated” follows the team as it tries to win its first playoff game in school history, but the more interesting story dances at the edges. Race isn’t talked about explicitly (except when Courtney jokingly asks an angry player whether the reason he won’t ride with him is that he “doesn’t like white people”); economic differences are expressed simply, as when that same player — who lives part-time with an assistant coach — talks about how he sees people jogging on the sidewalks near his coach’s house and how people in his own neighborhood would react to seeing him jogging down the road.
The filmmakers told me they deliberately didn’t linger on the differences that separate black from white and wealthy from poor because the team and the coaches didn’t talk about them. But, for me, the question remains: Did they not talk about them because these differences don’t matter, or because they figure that living a dozen miles and many thousands of dollars apart is the way it will always be?