Coach Carter has all the hallmarkings of any other sentimental sports drama. Mix a tough coach with some deprived kids with some tense, mismatched basketball games and you have the classic formula for a Hollywood sports movie. Think again. When the coach in question is played by Samuel L Jackson, the action is accompanied by a hot hip hop soundtrack and the plot is inspired by a true story, this is a film that can stick its neck above the genre and demand to be seen.
Ken Carter, the man who inspired the film, made the headlines when he controversially locked his undefeated basketball team out the school gym because several members of the team were not keeping up their grades. His actions caused outrage within the community who argued that basketball was the only positive thing in many of these kids’ lives.
This was the viewpoint that Carter hoped to challenge. He wanted to show these boys that there were options in life beyond the school basketball team that they signed contracts that required them to achieve a grade point average of 2.3 and regular class attendance in order to play on the team.
The film begins with Carter (Samuel L Jackson) returning to his old school Richmond High to contemplate a job offer to coach the school basketball. He accepts, of course, and we witness him use extreme methods to transform the team from losers to winners. But winning is not enough and we see Carter’s genuine anguish at discovering that some of his boys have not upheld their part of the contracts forcing him to lock them out of the gym and cancel important games. Carter struggles to get the community on his side but his team begin to support him and the lockout is ended, leading the team to win a tournament and enter the state championships for the first time in the school’s history.
The stories of some of the team’s key players are also allowed to emerge, providing a chance for the young supporting cast to demonstrate strong acting abilities. Rob Brown follows up his critically acclaimed breakthrough performance in Finding Forrester with a touching portrayal of the thoughtful and intelligent Kenyon, while Rick Gonzalez contrasts him nicely with his excellent turn as the troubled Timo Cruz.
Gonzalez’s performance avoids the usual clichs of the ‘misunderstood one’ in films like this and we see a believable character who can be threatening, cheeky and vulnerable all at once. And there is also a surprisingly assured debut from RnB superstar Ashanti, who drops her usual glamour to play Kenyon’s downtrodden pregnant girlfriend Kyra with a great deal of sincerity.
But this is Samuel’s show. Few doubt the talents of Samuel L Jackson, who hit the mainstream with a n award winning performance in Pulp Fiction, and this is a rare chance for him to steal the show completely. He lives up to the job unquestionably, bringing elements of his classic hardman to the role as well as his own natural charm and wit. He also demonstrates a range of emotions, which he delivers with the necessary degree of subtlety to be convincing.
However, Coach Carter is a sports movie first and foremost, even if it is not always about sport. Strong acting is not enough if the basketball looks unconvincing, but fortunately the basketball scenes score high on authenticity. They even make the sport look exciting, which for a British audience who prefer to see their balls kicked than bounced, is an achievement.
All this action is accompanied by a hard-hitting hip-hop soundtrack, which also helps lift this film above the average sentimental drama. It features 14 new songs including the single Hope by Twista, which is accompanied by a Chris Robinson directed video starring Jackson and Gonzalez from the movie.
Yes there is the odd schmaltzy line and no the plot does not throw up many surprises but that is not the point. What lies beneath is a powerful and important message. This inspirational story not only demonstrates what can be achieved through one man’s courage and determination but also tackles the far less sexy subject of education. Sadly there is not always a Ken Carter to help youngsters from falling through the cracks of a system.