Suffering the effects of 1970's prejudice even with his impressive educational and athletic background, Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) is forced to take a job rehabbing a dilapidated rec center, complete with a crabby janitor named Elston (Bernie Mac). A former swimming competitor, Ellis pays special attention to cleaning up the pool, which entices the local youth, looking for a way out of the heat and away from the lure of crime. Ellis takes this chance to teach the boys about competitive swimming, hoping to give their lives some purpose outside of violence.
"Pride" comes to us "inspired by a true story." It's a common declaration recently, but I'm inclined to believe this film. This movie is made up of small blessings and lengthy moments of emotional poetry, each centered on young characters that are not thugged-out, larger than life personalities, and most certainly do not have all the answers. Jim Ellis propelled himself through life with his convictions, his talents, and his hope, and that's what I admired about this picture: it seems honest in its desire to give the audience a lovely moral lift.
"Pride" is a movie soaked in broad audience-pleasing rituals, and that formula isn't managed well by first-time director Sunu Gonera. The film has an annoying way of slipping through Gonera's fingers, most pointedly in the creation of a "villain" character for the audience to hiss and for Ellis to overcome. Portrayed with over-the-top reptilian menace, the drug dealer character is intended to be the quicksand of the neighborhood; the man who prompts doubt in Ellis's team and represents the evil present in the inner-city.
The character is one step short from holding a pitchfork and stroking his pointed tail, and it destroys the potency of "Pride" every time Gonera has to trot out this character for cheap effect. Not only does it take away time from strengthening the bond between the audience and the swimmers but it also emits a strong odor of studio-tampering that sickens. Unfortunately, the Caucasian characters are also stripped of dimension, portrayed here as unbearable loudmouthed racists and cheaters.
There are times when I thought "Pride" was lost to cliché for good, but there are two actors in this film that won't let that happen: Howard and Mac. Both deliver such sincere performances that it's impossible for "Pride" to outright fail due to the incredible effort they bring to the script and direction.
Mac gets the laughs, and plays the old codger with typical Macnese abruptness, but as the triumphs grown larger, Elston finds the team's successes reinforce a sense of spirituality and community in his life.
Howard is the core of the film, and he doesn't take that challenge lightly. A sublime talent, Howard uses his gift for raw sentiment wonderfully in "Pride," ripping his heart open to express the frustrations with the team and the neighborhood, while lending the sequences of victory a thrilling tenderness that simmers underneath his skin. Howard is the focal point of grace that "Pride" eventually comes around to define itself by, and exudes a level of artistic superiority the film should've followed more closely.
"Pride" concludes with a standard championship finale right out of the Hollywood playbook, and truthfully, there should be no surprises. It's a testament to the performers that they can extract some fluid of suspense out of the rampant clichés spread out picnic-style in the final 20 minutes, and to Gonera's good fortune that he lucked into Terrence Howard.