erik lundegaard


Remember The Titans (2000)

In 1993 the Walt Disney Company announced plans to build a theme park near Haymarket, Virginia, called "Disney's America." The hub would be a Civil War-era village, replete with slavery, and would include President's Square (celebrating democracy), We the People (the immigrant experience) and a recreation of the historic battle between the Monitor and Merrimac. Plus rides. The idea was met with harsh criticism from historians, who didn't want their history Disneyfied, and when the criticism reached a certain pitch, Disney abandoned their plans. At least temporarily.

Written by:
Gregory Allen Howard

Directed by:
Boaz Yakin

Denzel Washington
Will Patton
Wood Harris
Ryan Hurst
Donald Adeosun Faison
Craig Kirkwood
Ehtan Suplee
Kip Pardue
Hayden Panettiere

If there's an argument against the proliferation of awards, here it is. Remember The Titans was nominated — generally in acting, generally for Denzel — for the following awards: Angel, Black Entertainment, Blockbuster, Casting Society of America, Golden Satellite, Heartland Film, Image, Las Vegas Film Critics, Motion Picture Sound Editors, People's Choice, Political Film Society and Young Artist. Much ado.

"Tonight we got Hayfield. Like all the other schools in this conference they're all white. They don't have to worry about race. We do. But we're better for it."

In Remember the Titans, the Walt Disney Company is back in Virginia and intent on putting a nostalgic gloss on another turbulent period in American history. It's 1971 and desegregation is in full swing. Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) arrives from North Carolina for an assistant coaching position at T.S. Williams High School. Soon, though, the school board, responding to political pressure, elevates him to head coach over Bill Yoast (Will Patton), who is something of a legend in the area. Will this work? Initially, no. Yoast is insulted and Boone feels awkward stealing another man's job. But both men eventually bow to pressure from their own community (the black community sees Boone as a leader, the white students will quit if Yoast does) and attempt to make the situation work. The desegregated team then heads to Gettysburg for football camp.

There, the focus becomes "Will the players get along?" You've got angry white guy Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) vs. angry black guy Julius Campbell (Wood Harris). The white guys refuse to block for the black guys. The black guys like to sing in harmony and play the dozens. Meanwhile, Coach Boone reveals himself to be something of a martinet. He leads the team on a 4 a.m. run through the woods to the Gettysburg graveyard where he gives an awful speech with phrases like "bubbling blood" and "hot lead." Washington's performance is actually one of the few things that rings true about the movie. Most high school football coaches I've known have been thick, ordinary men, without much charm, and Denzel does his best to keep his character charmless.

The players eventually bond but back home the community maintains the old prejudices. There are roiling (but sanitized) protests against busing, and Bertier must defend his friendship with Julius to his mother and girlfriend. Meanwhile the white town leaders have decided that if the Titans lose even one game, Boone is out. Are these men different from the school board that forced Boone in? If so, how can they pre-empt the school board? No help is given in this area.

It also turns out that T.S. Williams is the only integrated school in the community — or at least the conference — which leads to Coach Boone's one good speech. "Tonight we've got Hayfield," he tells his team. "Like all the other schools in this conference they're all white. They don't have to worry about race. We do. But we're better for it." One could say the same thing, one hopes, about our country.

Remember the Titans looks like it could have taken place anytime (there are no big afros, no bell-bottoms, no peace signs), and in fact Disney marketed it as a contemporary story, mentioning no history in its ad campaigns. At the same time, it's misty with nostalgia about one of the most turbulent, divisive periods in recent American history. Its blacks are harmless. Coach Yoast is given a temperamental daughter, Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere), who can voice white anger safely, while Coach Boone's daughter is a stereotype-breaking priss. Once old conflicts are resolved, personalities suddenly shift to accommodate new conflicts. And right before the big game, there's an A.E. Housman-type auto accident.

That all of this is based on a true story doesn't mean its execution isn't suspect. The worst moment is saved for the end. Ten years later, old friends and coaches gather around Bertier's grave and then, impromptu, softly sing "Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Good-bye." Since this song is generally used at sports games to taunt losing teams, one wonders if it isn't slightly inappropriate.

—January 30, 2002

© 2002 Erik Lundegaard