starring Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Emily Deschanel, Jon Voight
screenplay by Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois and Gregory Allen Howard
directed by James Gartner
starring Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton, Gérard Depardieu
screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman, based on the screenplay by J.B. Priestley
directed by Wayne Wang
by Walter Chaw There are two big laughs in Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer's African-American Hoosiers, Glory Road. The first comes when some white guy says derisively, "Can you imagine what basketball dominated by Negroes would look like?", while the sight of defeated Kentucky coaching legend Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight), vilified by history perhaps unfairly (though there's no question that he's vilified unfairly by this film), mourning the loss of the National Championship Game to an upstart team prompts the second. Both moments speak to the biggest problems in a film riddled with little ones: the former because it makes the audience complicit in--and comfortable with--the picture's callousness and casual blanket racism, and the latter because everything that happens in the film is already a foregone conclusion. The only appeal left is rooted in seeing the black players put on exactly the kind of degrading sideshow the picture suggests they're too human for. Glory Road is smug, offensive, and ignorant in the way that films with no self-awareness are ignorant--wrapped in a story designed specifically to make people cheer and believe that this one game in 1966 changed peoples' attitudes towards African-Americans in sports instead of simply bolstering the idea that the black athlete was advantageous and alien rather than just merely alien.
The point illustrates itself early on as Coach Haskins (Josh Lucas) moves his ornamental reaction shot of a wife (Emily Deschanel) and kid (kids? Who knows) to the men's dorm of little Texas Western University in taking over the school's moribund men's basketball program. With no recruiting budget, resourceful Haskins resorts to acquiring seven young black men from across the country (out of his own pocket, it's suggested--so much is suggested and so little demonstrated that the picture's narrative outline must've looked like an ink blot) to institutional asides of "we don't want no nigger ball here," referring to the undisciplined playground style of basketball believed to be played by a race too stupid to learn the nuances of Dr. Naismith's game. Soon enough, after the requisite training montage that includes a lot of running and very little instruction, point guard Bobby (Derek Luke) says, "C'mon coach, you gotta let us play our game." Said "game," of course, proved to be superior and is augmented in true Jerry Bruckheimer-style (producer of this and the identically muddy Remember the Titans) by Magic Johnson/"Showtime" Lakers-era alley-oops off the glass, in-your-face theatrics, and reverse slam-dunks. It's the equivalent in knuckle-headedness of the heroine in the simultaneously-opening Tristan & Isolde somehow channelling John Donne poetry from hundreds of years into the future. These films don't know any other way to give their characters currency and figure that their targeted audiences won't know or care about the difference.
Supporters of Glory Road are interested in history insofar as it can be ground up and shoved into a sausage skin for ease of consumption, orally or otherwise. It suggests that once Haskins arrived at the El Paso campus, he brought with him the first black folks these crackers (other epithets used by the black heroes for their white teammates include "honkey" and "Green Acres" and "Jethro, Ellie May, and Uncle Jed" before their victims protest that at least on the team, they're the minorities) ever laid eyes on when the school had not only tentatively integrated in the Fifties, but had already featured three black players on the basketball team, too. (The team that evil, monolithic Kentucky (which itself tried to recruit legendary, and black, Wes Unseld in 1964, two years prior to the events of the film) beat to play Western Texas in the finals, in fact, featured four-out-of-five black players in the starting line-up.) Important to few, Haskins won the title in his sixth year as coach, not his first--but important to me is a fictional pre-game pep talk that has Haskins expounding at length about how "everyone" thinks the team is a bunch of monkeys. That's pretty risky stuff in a film that itself skirts along the edge of being patronizing exploitation. Soft-sold is the way that the players were essentially imprisoned in their dorms so as not to disturb the rest of the campus: forward Dave Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr in the film), a year removed from the Big Game, offered that "it's a funny place. On the basketball court you're groovy people, but off the court you're animals. Even the Mexicans look down on you." (Jack Olsen, "The Black Athlete," SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, July 15, 1968, pp. 30-43). (And speaking of Mexicans, there's one on the team so marginalized that he functions as befuddled wallpaper. Power to the people, my brothers.) The requisite ball-breaking earth mama figure is here, too, pushing her son to become a student athlete and scholar. In truth, Haskins received a lot of heat for the academic performance of his recruits:
Winning the title focused national attention on the school, and what was discovered embarrassed Haskins. Most of the Texas Western players were either failing academically, or worse, being carried by the school to keep them eligible. Haskins was publicly accused of exploiting his Black recruits for his own glory. For the first time the question of the intellectual cost of athletic integration was being raised. Yes, a basketball scholarship got these brothers into college. But what good did it do them if they made no progress to a degree? (Nelson George, Elevating the Game, Harper Collins, 1992, pg. 137)
The problems solved by Glory Road are problems still. The NBA instituted a dress code this year in an unspoken effort to align the "thug" culture of modern basketball with the expectations of its largely white upper-middle-to-upper class audience. Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson, tattooed, 'do-ragged, and the bane of conservative white culture, told the PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS that "just because you put a guy in a tuxedo, it doesn't mean he's a good guy." But more central to the issue are comments made by Rob Manfred, executive vice president of labour relations and human resources for Major League Baseball, when asked whether the MLB was considering following suit: "Because of the nature of our travel and the makeup of our employees, it has never been an issue that we had to centrally regulate." (Italics ours.) What Glory Road does is exacerbate difficult issues by blowing them into a sugared bauble of underdog sports clichés and, more damning, race caricatures and slapstick, sitcom misunderstandings and rapprochements, all excused as artifacts of some distant past. Whites are soulless and stiff, blacks are soulful and groovy; a scene on a bus where the whites compare music with the blacks is paid off with Lattin pulling out a giant speaker to demonstrate, what, that blacks liked their boomboxes even in the '60s? Between its wall-to-wall soundtrack of Motown-for-happy/Gospel-for-serious, its tacked-on love affair, its stock, gloriously-underwritten performances, and its badly-shot and context-less game re-creations, Glory Road is a mostly-fabricated feel-good flick about bigotry and the painful integration of America's public institutions.
Evil in a different way, Queen Latifah's latest turn as champion of the underclass is a remake of a little-known Alec Guinness starrer from 1950, Last Holiday. In it, find Guinness's George Bird transformed into sass-dispenser Georgia Byrd (Latifah), a house wares clerk in a department store (at least she's not wearing her house-mammy uniform from Bringing Down the House) who discovers that she has three weeks to live and proceeds to blow her savings at an exclusive resort in the Czech Republic, where everyone on the street speaks French. (French equals class and expense, Czech equals kidnapping and ransom, I guess.) The early part of the film is shot in pre-deluge New Orleans, lending the piece a good deal of gloomy irony as the very religious Byrd (she has a running monologue with God, throughout) thanks her maker at the end for allowing her to fulfill her dream of opening a restaurant in the Big Easy. The message of the piece is less Marxist, though, than it is confirmation that the best things in life aren't free, but in fact very, very expensive--and, moreover, worth it, baby. Byrd's initial repressed spinster-ism (she cooks a gourmet meal...well, an Emeril meal, takes a picture, and then pops in a Lean Cuisine instead) mutates into a sort of Bagger Vance font of down-home wisdom post-diagnosis, using her temporary wealth as the means through which to tug the ears of congressmen and business magnates with her brand of chicken soup for the soul. Georgia saves the world one Abramoff at a time.
It's a remake of not only the Guinness original, then, but also Joe vs. the Volcano and Short Time. A series of wailing protestations sees Georgia taking on the church, the government, the airlines, the broken healthcare system, and, curiously, the proletariat afflictions of having to wait in line. Last Holiday is one part self-defeating social commentary and one part Being There naïf tomfoolery as Latifah, her body-shape often the only punchline, snowboards and base-jumps for the purposes of inspiring rich people. Money can't buy love, except that it can--the picture's self-righteous message concerning the evils of capitalism in its palm-crossed politicos deflated utterly by its message that spending great amounts of cash on yourself is guaranteed happiness. After a night at the roulette table leaves Georgia one-hundred grand richer, the intention of the film is brought home with force as one remembers that she's at a charity event and that this hundred grand, especially in the hands of a terminally-ill woman about to die, would certainly benefit the less-fortunate more than another dress-up montage will. Last Holiday is the filmic equivalent of getting people to vote against their own fiscal self-interests--and if I can't be bothered to discuss the huge crush that co-wage slave Sean (LL Cool J) nurses for Georgia, leading to a weird climax wherein Sean appears to have frozen to death on a glacier, count yourself lucky. It doesn't make any sense (and neither does Gérard Depardieu as a smitten chef or poor Susan Kellerman as Frau Blücher), though what does strike a chord is the idea that to change the world, you gotta be loaded--and that once you're loaded, you're probably loath to change the system that got you there. Isn't that right, Ms. Latifah? You go girl. Originally published: January 13, 2006.