Film — Coach Carter (PG-13)

Coach Carter (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

Samuel L. Jackson makes the uplifting surprisingly tolerable in Coach Carter, the tale of a basketball coach who wants to save his high school players from the perils of the urban California streets.

Ken Carter (Jackson) is a successful man — he has his own business, a nice house and a son enrolled in a prestigious parochial school. But he has a desire to do something for the failure-bound young men of his alma mater Richmond High School (the center of a poverty-plagued neighborhood in northern California). He takes on an extremely low-paying job as basketball coach and lays down the rules to his students: they must go to class, maintain a C average, sit in the front rows of their class and wear a tie on game day. He also pushes against school culture by requiring punctuality and politeness and by tellingly banning the use of the n-word, even as a term of affection, among his African-American players. Receiving carte blanche to turn around the fortunes of this failing team, he makes his players run drills, do push-ups and suicides (the shin-splinting sprints to half court and back) and builds a heretofore unknown sense of team unity.

The boys start winning, naturally, but soon they realize that success on the court is not his goal. When their grades prove to be unsatisfactory, he shuts down their games — in the middle of an undefeated run — to force his students to study, much to the horror of the local community. His reason? He gives the boys a facts-of-life speech about their likelihood of ending up in jail and their chances of spending a life in poverty if they don’t use basketball as a means, not to some far-off dream of the NBA, but to the attainable end of a college scholarship and a chance at a stable adulthood.

This pro-college mission is no easy task in the face of the boys’ current complicated lives. Of the players who receive the most focus, Kenyon (Rob Brown) and his girlfriend Kyra (Ashanti) are in a family way. She’s intent on having the baby — though more, we believe, out of loneliness and a feeling of inevitability than anything else. He’s worried that this premature adulthood will keep them in a paycheck-to-paycheck state forever.

Timo (Rick Gonzalez), another talented player, must resist the pull of a life and employment in a drug trade run, locally, by his cousin. Other players wrestle with parents in jail or an indifferent education that has left them lacking even the ability to read.

Coach Carter is very much what you think it is, very much the combination of big game and triumph-over-poverty clichés that exist in a host of other sports and/ or high school movies. What makes the story stand out is the rather innovative idea that college, not a season championship, is the ultimate goal. What makes the movie stand out is the rather expected but always appreciated skill of the talented Jackson. He’s just fun to watch on screen — whether he’s playing tough, righteous, cop or criminal, he’s always playing somebody worth watching.

Perhaps a bit too long and a smidge too predictable, Coach Carter nonetheless scores on the buzzer based on the strength of its lead.

- Amy Diaz

 
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