In Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball (2011) Brad Pitt—playing the saber-metric savant that is Oakland A’s GM, Billy Beane—breaks from his animatronic stat-crunching to wax poetic about the nation’s pastime. Pitt stares off into the distance of the lush outfield grass, almost lamenting to himself at a reality he no longer wished for but simply accepts, “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.” It’s just the right amount of cinematic cheese at the climax of the story. In one line, amidst the thousands of his beautifully, frenzied utterances, Pitt earns it—his own cliché: the boy inside the businessman, who just wants to play ball.
Lately, the romance around American sports has taken a sullen turn. With the welcome advent of childhood football safety (especially head trauma) invading national discourse, paired with the diminishing moral reputation of the NFL, the roaring rhetoric and hyperbole of beat writers, who once described professional football players as demigods bound to the ground only by interlocking chalk yard markers, withered in response to images of players past in wheelchairs, life support and violent chemical imbalances. It is in this very context where we are introduced to the sports documentary, We Could Be King (WCBK) and its namesake, M.L.King High, an inner-city Philadelphia public school facing bleak budget cuts and an integration of two rival schools, all in a town where football is still courted as savior.
Director Judd Ehrlich is slick and unforgiving in his cinematography. Through the sharp clarity of his camera, the viewer sees Philly’s inner city through the Hollywood lens (sans the bronzer or veneers): fields with more uprooted dirt than green grass, metal detectors in school hallways and an episode where a young man almost dies on the field from the whiplash of a horse-collar tackle are filmed as motivational and cinematic hero shots.
In a documentary as stock-formula in narrative as WCBK, from the inspirational coach to a star player with lax work ethic and a meddling school board, it is the documentarian’s lens that cannot make clean caricature. Rather, it skirts back and forth between Football as Savior, and, Football the Grim Reaper. According to the narrative, the sport is a unifying good for tough kids born into a difficult life. According to the lens, when a 17-year old kid lay flat on his back, unable to draw breath in his lungs, we see that football can indeed save young men. But, it demands their undying commitment—possibly even their lives.
Dantae, the aforementioned talented, most unmotivated player on the team, is the only one who seems to truly understand that his teammate almost lost his life in a practice. When Dantae writhes and screams in inconsolable anger, Coach Hines, the spiritual big brother to his players, is quick to run to him. Hines looks Dantae square in the face and tells him the reality is that dying on the field could happen to anybody, anytime: “That’s football,” he says.. Dantae relents, and accepts that plain truth, refusing to sacrifice four years of unimpeded football and a college education. “That’s football” and all of its consequences is the cliché that the boys, the coaches and the teachers at M.L. King live. It’s a cliché they’re forced into.
For a film that chooses to leave character backgrounds ambiguous and secondary, there are certain points of clarity that the film does address. School board issues that involve systemic wrongs, with fault lines running directly under every member of the teaching staff to Congress, can all somehow be solved through the bond of shared athletic achievement. Football can unify youth to save a failing school system; it can employ a truly transcendent leader and provide occupation to ensure its own future. We’re led to believe that football saves. And maybe it does. To be able to even get to thinking about such a simple solution took the bonding of 30 young boys who chose to gel as a team, rather than lose as individuals. That gridiron mythos of rearing young men and morphing them into a singular force, of single goal is truly a feat of mind, body and soul that is especially revered by this film.
At the end of the day, the boys at King aren’t meant to play the shoulder-pad laden tragic heroes of sports movies past: the inevitable death of an athlete gunned down by gang bangers. Instead, they have a coach who would die for them. Dantae succeeds, receiving a scholarship to Big East powerhouse West Virginia University. And with the boys doing push ups even after their final game, yelling out the meaning of the team motto, “Stay humble”, the documentary achieves exactly what it sets out to do. It redeems football in the eyes of America through the lens and lives of a story in Philadelphia. Football can still save our young boys, they say. It can get them to college. It can get them to unify. And even if the cost of admission is a child’s life, we will oblige.
We Could Be King is currently available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube.
Josh is a “writer” in LA too clumsy to waiter, so he goes to cafes and writes blogposts mainly about middle-America nostalgia and Asian American sheeet. Things he’s interested in order of significance: Jesus, streetwear, FIFA. And if this is starting to look like a sad dating profile, you should hit him up sometime. He has both the bleeding heart for the non-profit space and the insatiable hunger for the nicer things in life; he hopes to mend the two as gracefully and powerfully as possible.
You can find his thoughts on the best causal advertising here: forourprofit.wordpress.com