Hollywood has really gone overboard with the inspirational sports film. In the last couple of years alone, we've seen Coach Carter, Glory Road, Friday Night Lights, We Are Marshall, Invincible, The Rookie, Gridiron Gang, Miracle, and Radio, just to name a few. While the formula can go back as far as the beginning of cinema, it was the feel good facets of the Oscar winning Rocky that probably pushed the archetypes into overdrive. Thanks to a wealth of real life examples, and a seemingly insatiable public appetite for the format, filmmakers have definitely diluted the impact for such tales. Case in point - 2007's Pride. Telling the true story of Philadelphia Department of Recreation employee Jim Ellis, and his drive to form an inner city swim team, this genial, generic example represents everything good, and all that's derivative, about the genre. While you'll definitely enjoy your time in their presence, the people here have nothing new to add to the already overdone celluloid conceit.
After an incident in his youth, Jim Ellis is determined to show the racist Establishment that black swimmers are just as capable - and valuable - as white ones. Sadly, after 10 years of post-collegiate frustration, he finds himself working for the City of Philadelphia in their inner city Parks and Recreation Department. Asked to close up an old rec center, he instead refurbishes the facility's pool. With the help of longtime building maintenance man Mr. Elston, Ellis gets some local kids interested in competitive water sports. First, however, he must confront a local thug who wants a pair of the boys on his corrupt, criminal payroll. Within a few weeks, it is clear that his ragtag group of outcasts and at-risk teens will make a formidable squad. But bigotry once again rears its ugly, unashamed head - the chief component of said intolerance being a ritzy all white private school where Ellis was once turned down for a job. However, through their efforts, the PDR squad (the name stands for "Pride, Determination, and Resilience") work their way up to the Championships. Thanks to the concern of a courageous Councilwoman, and Ellis' tireless attempts to show his students a better way, the underprivileged and disenfranchised become empowered in a way that not only helps them, but benefits the entire community at large.
Movies like Pride are awfully hard to hate. They mean well, and don't do much damage when it comes to your entertainment aesthetic. They provide a nicely fictionalized take on a (usually) factual tale, and turn the minor pitfalls of the clearly defined characters into badges of belated honor. There are competitions to be illustrated, defeats to be experienced, and victories to be savored. And all throughout the gracious, general storyline, music montages - carefully crafted and edited shortcuts through which important plot points are illustrated - attempt to recreate the feeling of teamwork and the power in athletic accomplishment. In the end, we learn that the hardnosed but determined coach is a more or less decent guy, that even the most troubled and angry adolescent will prosper under the care and guidance of a concerned adult figure, and rich white kids are horribly racist and need some diversity knocked into their snobbish skulls. Accessorize with a love interest/family crisis subplot (or, in Pride's case, a cartoonish criminal element), garnish with a collection of era-appropriate pop/rock/soul songs, and avoid anything remotely controversial, scandalous, or shocking. Just like the other endemic emblems of our American Dream diorama, sports provide a platform for dozens of allegorical options, and it's this genre's job to make sure each and every one of the parable possibilities are explored.
For its part, Pride wants to work in some incidents of intolerance, an unusual approach to inspiration, and a kick ass '70s R&B soundtrack. South African director Sunu Gonera (making his big screen debut) is a filmmaker in love with the look of things - the broken down Philadelphia neighborhood where the PDR rec center is located, the dilapidated state of the facility itself, the languid cool blue of the pool waters against the peeling paint and disarray of the building. As a metaphor for escape, for being liberated from one's surroundings and lost in a liquid world of endless potential, the Olympic sized object at the center of Pride's story is very effective. Gonera makes the most of it, even when he's merely showcasing well toned actors effortlessly racing through its crystal clear contents. The basics of swimming, the mechanics of how an urban youth with little desire for competition can suddenly switch into an able artisan of the breast stroke, are not what is important here. Instead, Gonera takes the technical jargon peppered throughout the massively underwritten screenplay (credited to four different people) and uses it as symbols of character Jim Ellis' underlying effectiveness. A master of meaningful understatement and resolve, he's the kind of man who can turn terms like 'stretch', 'reach', 'cup' and 'kick' into statements of empowerment.
It helps that Oscar nominee Terrence Howard is in the lead. The actor makes an interesting choice here. Instead of creating a fire and brimstone version of a mentor, the kind of tough talking teacher who gets the most out of kids by confronting them head on, Howard turns Ellis into a laid back motivator. He's the kind of coach who chooses his words carefully, who uses opportunity and situation to say more than a string of emphatic epithets. For example, after a devastating loss to the aforementioned bigoted private school, Ellis' athletes try to shrug it off with lots of laughter and some silly street bravado. As they chuckle and jive, the coach just stews. Finally, when the moment appears to have played out, Ellis gets his assistant - the rec center's longtime janitor, played perfectly by comedian Bernie Mac - to aid him in a little well placed mockery. At first, the kids don't get it, but as Howard and his co-star turn up the teasing, the teens finally understand - their coach cares about them, and hates how they undermine themselves via such indirect self-deprecation. It's these sequences that resonate long after the swim meets lose their luster. Pride has its particulars in the right and proper places. Its cast is affable and more than capable. Had it been made two decades ago, it would be considered a landmark. Today, it is just one of dozens of derivative sports films, hoping that the missing "I" in team doesn't lead to other descriptive words like "pointless" or "futile".
The best way to describe the look of Pride's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is stunning. Gonera obviously has a strong visual sense, and said presence comes pouring forth all throughout this amazing transfer. The juxtaposition of color, the careful composition of shots, the attention to detail, and vibrant cinematography (thanks to veteran lens man Matthew F. Leonetti) are all amazing. This is one of the better DVD pictures in quite a while, one that speaks volumes for both the medium, and the man behind the camera.
As for the aural elements at play, Pride has a great old soul soundtrack. Iconic hits such as "Backstabbers" and "Strawberry Letter 23" come across brilliantly in the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. There is also a more mundane 2.0 Stereo option, but the mostly music driven presentation needs the extra speakers to really shine. As usual dialogue is crystal clear, and there's very little directional or spatial use of the extra channels. Still, the sonic situation here is very good indeed.
Rather lax in the bonus feature department, the DVD version of Pride contains a deleted scene (interesting, but not important to the storyline), some extended sequences (mostly surrounding the swim meet competitions) and a collection of musical montages. Along with the typical collection of trailers (Lionsgate loves to pile on the preview attractions), the best bit of added content here is director Gonera's full length audio commentary. A wonderfully ebullient fellow, the filmmaker comes across as highly proud of his movie, and his energy is infectious. About halfway through the discussion he kind of drops off, obviously lost in his own filmmaking magic. But for the most part, we get wonderful anecdotes about working with the cast, coming to America, and the difficulty in capturing authentic looking athleticism onscreen. It's an entertaining discourse, and really adds to the overall value of the package.
Given all that it has going for it - real life counterpart, inherently manipulative storyline, perfectly understated performances - Pride should really be better. But instead of capitalizing on the differences it can develop (the entire racism angle, the inner city struggle to stay alive), it falls back into easy archetypes and formulaic developments. Still, there is a lot of power in what Howard and Mac are throwing down, and to disrespect their efforts with a Rent It seems counterproductive to the whole film critic game. Therefore, a rating of Recommended will be offered - half heartedly - since the nobility of the message being forwarded is so potent. Jim Ellis may be a scholar among men, and his dedication to the poorer sections of a city like Philadelphia remains laudable. But not every story of adversity conquered and sports as social modifier needs to be told. Coming as it does at the very moment when the genre is turning in a mere mockery of its former self, Pride might just be a victim of being in the wrong place at an unnecessary time. Or it might just be that this old hat is too worn out and worked over to fit right anymore.
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