Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Remember when racism was neatly packaged

Remember the Titans
(Buena Vista, 2000)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Will Patton

Pop Matters
The film's unwavering naive optimism might be forgivable if it didn't claim to tell a tale "based on a true story." While various critics have pointed out the film's numerous historical inaccuracies, the social and political sugar-coating that takes place is even more disturbing. In one locker room scene, racial tension is first escalated by a black player insulting a white player's mother. When the white player gets the joke, however, he responds in kind and black and white alike enjoy a unifying, hearty laugh. In another locker room scene, the new transfer quarterback (Kip Pardue), embarrasses defensive star Gary Bertier (Ryan Hurst) by kissing him. Although the film makes numerous references to the quarterback's homosexuality, the kiss is treated as a harmless prank and the quarterback — called "Sunshine" — is fully accepted as one of the guys. While football may be an exclusively homosocial activity, it is anxiously heterosexual, at least in public. Like the military, the unwritten rules of football encourage all things "manly" and strictly preclude any homosexual or feminine behavior. Yet Remember the Titans glosses over any semblance of conflict with its unfailingly positive depiction of a team in harmony.

Such a depiction is hammered home by many sentimental moments, as characters take turns waxing philosophical to the accompaniment of a stirring orchestra. In once scene, assistant coach Yoast (the white former head coach played by Will Patton) confides, hat in hand, to Coach Boone that his wounded pride has gotten in the way of his coaching but now he is ready to make amends to ease their antagonistic relationship. Such moments reveal Remember the Titans's inclination to the cartoonish fantasies of the Walt Disney Corporation. These are intermixed with the action-packed, testosterone-charged stylings of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air, Enemy of the State, Armageddon), so that the film alternates between scenes of physically devastating football violence (as in the slow motion collisions shown in the championship game) and devastatingly bad dramatic moments. In one example, the star black player on the Titans, Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) visits Gary in hospital after the latter is paralyzed in a car wreck. Tearfully, the two join hands and pledge eternal friendship. Then Julius suggests that the two will live in the same neighborhood some day.

This scene, more than any other, encapsulates Remember the Titans' desire to mold the complex and contentious history of race relations in sport into a soundbite that the audience can feel good about. The true tragedy of the moment is not Gary's paralysis but Julius' naive belief (and the film's naive intimation) that his football experiences will put an end to racism. The film begins and concludes ten years later when the team reunites for Gary Bertier's funeral (the film does not specify that he has died in yet another car accident some years later). While the former players stand together as one and sing a laughably mournful version of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" to honor their fallen teammate, Coach Yoast's daughter Sheryl (a precocious nine-year-old for much of the film, played by Hayden Panettiere), now grown up, observes in a voiceover, "Whenever we reach for hate, we remember the Titans."

As inspiring as all this sounds, the racist dispositions of sports figures like baseball pitcher John Rocker and the continuing lack of black management and coaching in the NFL reflect that some people in the world of sports, if any, actually remember the T.C. Williams Titans or, more to the point, what the film suggests they represent. Racism persists, particularly in the field of athletics, in an insidious and multifaceted fashion. African Americans' athletic success continues to be bracketed by stereotypes dismissing their intellect and reducing their physical prowess to genetic "gifts" (assuming that athletes are born, not trained). At the same time, advertising agencies, corporate America (Nike, Reebok, Gatorade, etc.), and exclusively white management all profit greatly from black participation in sport. The heavy-handed and simplistic narrative in Remember the Titans may inspire good feelings for the short course of a ninety minute movie, but falls terribly short as a social polemic. The film's relentless utopianism demonstrates that, even when drawing from a true story, Disney can't resist telling (and selling) a fairy tale. -Tobias Peterson

Note: Score ratings in bold are Select Reviews, and "( )" the authors cited.