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January 17, 2006

Glory Road paves the way for better Disney dramas

Over the past 15 years, Disney has made a series of uplifting sports movies that, while always emotionally satisfying, vary little from one movie to another. It’s a type of safe yet praiseworthy filmmaking that displays a pattern that is atrociously generic. At this point I should be honest: When a critic tries to shred any trace of sentimentality from his analysis, staples from childhood make this difficult. So although this perpetually winning Little Leaguer (“Everyone gets a trophy!”) found excitement as a child from Cool Runnings and Iron Will, it takes Disney’s newest film, Glory Road—and the emotional associations it raises—to realize just how formulaic these films are.

Over the past decade, Disney has put a variety of sports into the same formula: Take a collection of athletic misfits and place them in the hands of an unassuming leader who gives them a tenuous sense of confidence that is challenged by an overacted and overwritten villain figure, until the team reaches an emotional victory. The only previous film to show any variation on this is The Rookie, and that’s only because the ageism Dennis Quaid faces is less controversial than the racism, nationalism, and class struggle faced in other films. Disney chose to skirt around the issue of race as much as possible in Remember the Titans and Cool Runnings, so the predominant question going into Glory Road—a story about the first college basketball team with all-black starters to win the national championship—is: Will this be the movie where Disney takes a chance and addresses the issue head on?

To find the answer, one must read between the lines. What matters is that in Glory Road, Disney has, in fact, dealt effectively with the issues of racism in the Deep South in the 1960s. Barely five minutes into the movie, the N-word is dropped, and while it is shocking to the audience, it seems eerily natural to the characters in the movie. Later, however, the slightly less offensive “Negro” is used instead, and you start to wonder if the original slur was just for show. This is certainly not the case, as death threats and acts of violence dominate the second half of the movie. As the black basketball players of Texas Western University surprise everyone and succeed, the turmoil of the social situation of black men in 1960s Texas begins to weigh down on the characters.

Unlike other Disney sports dramas, this is not a story full of crude jokes and overtly propagandistic messages; this is a story of people getting stares whenever they enter a room, one where social grace is treaded on constantly when the equilibrium of an athletic system is thrown off. And while the locker-room conversation about the matter is too detailed—and issues such as academic performance and interracial dating are treated far too humorously—it results in the most compelling chapter in the Disney franchise to date.

That doesn’t mean it’s the most thrilling movie, as violent threats and unbridled animosity don’t always make for the best entertainment. But first-time director James Gartner has made some smart choices to gloss over the movie’s flaws. For one, the movie is much faster paced than most movies of this genre. While some of the content presented at the beginning may seem overwhelming at first, it helps keep the viewer enthralled, even when the subject matter isn’t so compelling.

The movie is also perfectly cast—the black players have excellent chemistry with each other, and they are both streetwise and deeply concerned for each other’s well being. The five white players on the team, who have an unheralded position in this story, excellently display their hesitance of being put into the spotlight. While they may not be as supportive of their black companions, they show an undying dedication to the team as a whole.

Perhaps the best performance is by Josh Lucas as John Haskins, the head coach of Texas Western. Haskins has by far the widest character arc, and Lucas portrays him as a firm, confident leader even while he ventures out into uncharted waters. Teaching disciplined, defensive basketball to a collection of flashy players is no easy task. When faced with their first challenging opponent, the team debates which style of ball to play: stylish or disciplined. Their conclusion is to “play both.” Symbolic of two worlds colliding, this alliance helps the team overcome all its opponents—and not just on the basketball court.