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This film about a high school football team of underdogs contains so many of the things we love to see in our movies that it’s little wonder Undefeated won the Oscar for Best Documentary this year. An emotionally searing story that documents the first winning football season of the perpetual losers from Manassas High School in West Memphis, Tenn., has been expertly molded by co-directors Lindsay and Martin from 500 hours of footage. It’s a story of impoverished, inner-city black kids overcoming the unfair obstacles in their lives to achieve success. It’s also a story of an altruistic white coach who has volunteered for six years at the expense of his own family to help these teens learn the basics of teamwork, responsibility, and character – the so-called real fundamentals of football. There’s also a story in here that’s reminiscent of that other recent Oscar winner, The Blind Side, in which the Manassas Tigers’ star player, O.C., stays for half of every week at the home of one of his white coaches, who tutors him to help raise his grades so that O.C. can get into one of the many colleges that have expressed interest in him.
There is no denying that Undefeated is rousing, heartwarming fare. Try as you might, the personal stories of the three players and the head coach that the filmmakers select as their film’s focus become irresistible. More than a story about a team that has never won a season since the school’s inception in 1899, this is a story about individuals whose efforts make a difference in their world. That their playing field is a gridiron is incidental; their accomplishments could translate into any walk of life. But sure as we love a good underdog sports story, we also love stories which demonstrate that good character can help a person escape the confines of the ghetto, and that faith and moral grit can drive someone to be tenacious, racially color-blind, and ultimately successful. But even though the film relies on many of the clichés of the form, Undefeated is a masterfully crafted work that honestly scores a touchdown.