erik lundegaard

Coach Carter
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Coach Carter (2005)

Thomas Carter, the director of the new inner-city high-school basketball drama “Coach Carter” (no relation), was previously the director of “Save the Last Dance” and “Swing Kids.” Before that he directed episodes of “Miami Vice” and “Hill Street Blues,” and before that he was an actor, most famously playing student-athlete James Hayward on the TV show “The White Shadow,” a late ’70s inner-city high-school basketball drama. So you could say he’s come full circle.

There are parallels between Thomas Carter’s first and most recent jobs. Both story lines concern former basketball stars who take high-school coaching jobs and turn a ragtag, insolent team into champions.

On his first day on the job, Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) addresses each of his players as “sir” — giving them the respect he expects in return — and hands out contracts. Among the clauses: They have to maintain a 2.3 GPA, they have to sit in the front row of all their classes, and they have to wear suits and ties on game day. Otherwise: no ball.

Based on a real story, “Coach Carter” isn’t simply battling the ghosts of “White Shadow” here but the entire teacher/student subgenre. It often loses this battle.

Parents object to Carter’s tough standards, like the parents in “Lean on Me,” but he’s unapologetic, like that movie’s Joe Clark. The female principal is at best a silent ally, at worst an obstacle to progress, like the principal in “Radio.” Players are enticed by gang life, and one player’s girlfriend gets pregnant, which feels very “White Shadow”-y — it’s a subplot that, although it avoids clichéd characters and easy answers, isn’t particularly dramatic. It’s one of the film’s weaker aspects.

One of its better aspects? The lessons don’t stop once the players win; it’s when the lessons start. Full of themselves now — celebrating easy buckets and trash-talking the vanquished — Carter hilariously does the same during practice to show how foolish they look. “Since when is winning not enough?” he asks. He counsels against using a racial epithet. He peppers them with life questions. He keeps their eyes on the prize: sports not as an end in itself but as a means to becoming better people.

Carter’s story gained national attention in 1999 when (again, reminiscent of Joe Clark) he chained the gymnasium doors because several players were failing their classes. The team was state-tournament-bound, but Carter refused to allow them to play or practice until they got their grades up. Unlike society as a whole, he puts the “student” in “student-athlete” first.

This message is certainly welcome, but “Coach Carter” is overlong and uneven. None of the young actors blows you away, and the final speech is so stuffed with clichés my jaw dropped. Even Jackson is surprisingly one-note in the title role. What is his inner life like? Does he have one? Must decency be dull?

—This review originally appeared in The Seattle Times on January 14, 2005.

© 2005 Erik Lundegaard