March 29, 2007

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Pride (PG)
Terrence Howard tries with all his might to give some kids in an African American neighborhood in 1970s Philadelphia a chance to become swimming champions in Pride, a movie in which Howard also tries with all his might to keep from becoming the kind of one-dimensional saint the movie is pushing him to be.

Itís a valiant effort that Howard gives and itís a real testament to his acting ability that Pride didnít completely suck out my will to live over its nearly two hours. Iíve seen a lot of movies about how the nobility of sport can change opinions on race and a kidís outlook on life and a communityís spirit. A LOT. I could have MadLibbed this movie and come up with identical lines of dialogue and plot points.

Jim Ellis (Howard) would probably feel the same way about some of the events in this movie. As a kid in North Carolina in the 1960s, he had a hard time competing on his collegeís swim team. Apparently some of the Bubbas on opposing swim teams didnít want to share the pool with an African American kid, understandably upsetting young Jim, who had worked so hard to kick their hillbilly asses during competition.

So he isnít all that surprised when, about a decade later, he doesnít get a job coaching for a prestigious prep school but is forced to take what is essentially temp work at a neighborhood recreation center that is being shut down.

And, when the city emphasizes that by taking down the rims on the rec centerís basketball courts ó leaving nothing for the young men gathered there to do, Jim seems equally unsurprised. But just because he expects the system to suck doesnít mean he just sits idly by. Even though the center will soon be closed, he fills the pool and teaches the recreation-less boys, and eventually one girl, how to swim ó not just stay afloat but how to get the most out of each stroke and how to gain more power through their training.

Naturally, the kidsí first stab at competition with other, better-prepared teams is a disaster but it motivates them and eventually even the neighborhood. But will the draw of swimming be strong enough to keep the kids away from the neighborhood drug dealer, who sees these would-be swimmers as his future workforce?

As always happens with these stories, the photos and text at the end of the story about the real guy are always more interesting than the fictionalized version of that personís life that weíve just seen. A documentary about Jim Ellis would probably have been far more engaging and, well, real than Prideís very predictable story arc and its shoe-horned-in love story.

But, since this is what weíve got, I guess itís not so bad. Howard is a fine actor and he really does try to make something more of this than the Lifetime-by-way-of-ESPN story. Bernie Mac helps cut the sappiness as the janitor who slowly becomes Ellisí partner in coaching. Tom Arnold gives his prep school coach a few shades more personality than the bad rich whitey character he could have been. And the kids are personable even if they are interchangeable with all the other kids in all the other movies where kids have learned lessons from a dedicated coach.

If youíve seen one sports inspirational youíve seen Pride but if you havenít cheered on a movie team since Hoosiers, perhaps Pride wonít seem quite as preserved in chlorine. B-

Rated PG for thematic material, language including some racial epithets and violence. Directed by Sunu Gonera and written by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe and Norman Vance Jr., Pride is an hour and 48 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.