By Daniel Garrett
Directed by Sunu Gonera
Produced by Brett Forbes, Patrick Rizzotti, Michael Ohoven,
Adam Rosenfelt and Paul Hall
Life is what you make it: the power is ours. The appeal of the motion picture Pride is form and emotion: in it, self-development, communal integrity, and a sport’s competition are aligned, as the film presents the story of a man whose youthful ability was insulted by the refusal of some of his fellow citizens to compete with him as a swimmer due to his skin color and, more recently, to hire him as a coach for the same fact; and the man, Jim Ellis, finds himself an administrator of a run-down recreation center set to close in a few months, the doors to which Jim Ellis opens to a group of boys who have nowhere else to play and where Ellis begins to help them to improve their swimming, making them good enough for competition. Terrence Howard is the coach, Jim Ellis; and as in his other performances, the film viewer is impressed by his willingness to give his whole heart.
Terrence Howard has been in the films Who’s the Man (1993), Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), Johns (1996), The Best Man (1999), Angel Eyes (2001)), Hart’s War (2002), Biker Boyz (2003), Ray (2004), Iron Man (2008), Fighting (2009), Red Tails (2012), On the Road (2012) and Winnie (2012), but gained the most publicity for his controversial role as a rap-loving Memphis pimp in Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow (2005). In The Washington Post, cinema critic Ann Hornaday noted, “For his part, Howard simultaneously radiates a hypnotic blend of determination, danger and soul as the pimp with a heart of gold. With his flashing eyes and mumbling drawl, he often throws off the same kind of seductive heat as Benicio Del Toro. And he handles the movie’s more lighthearted repartee with aplomb as well” (July 22, 2005). A pimp with a heart of gold? Others saw the film and moaned or howled: “…And then you take a movie like Hustle & Flow where they’re saying ‘It’s hard out here for a pimp.’ That’s the biggest slap in the face! I argue with people who say the main character wants to make it, he’s working hard, and you can’t knock him for that. You can’t? He pimped his girlfriend! He could’ve gotten a job at McDonald’s. And he’s supposed to be a hero?” commented Charles Burnett, a film director whose own work (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep with Anger, The Glass Shield) has focused on intimate life, work, folklore, morality, and music, assessing the failure of the American social system regarding African-Americans, especially the institutions of education and culture (Charles Burnett Interviews, University of Mississippi Press, 2011; page 158). Of course, artists cannot explore cheery, admirable states always—but the question is how the abject is to be explored, with what criticality and insight.
Terrence Howard had appeared in another film, Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) , which attempted—with rhetoric and sensation—to deal with some of the conflicts in American society. Howard and Thandie Newton played an attractive, successful couple, an intriguing and rare film image (if only that couple could be presented more completely in another film), but they suffer harassment and sexual assault from a white male policeman in the film Crash. “Contrasting Crash as a public narrative about race with the film The Bodyguard, audiences would be able to see the difference between open affirmation of white male regard for black women and the dehumanizing rituals that take place in Crash,” argued writer and college professor Bell Hooks as part of her necessary deconstruction of Paul Haggis’s Crash (Writing Beyond Race, Routledge, 2012; page 106). In one film, a forceful white male disrespects and harms, and in the other and earlier film, starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Houston, the forceful white male respects and protects. Further, Hooks declares, “Haggis’s film suggests all black people are insane and black males are particularly insane. If sanity is that we can face reality, then insanity is that we live in a world of fantasy. What we really see in this film is youthful black masculinity trapped in a doomed world of fantasy—it can’t survive” (112). The look and content of interpretations and presentations of African-Americans, to say the least, remain a controversial matter; and actors are the faces and bodies of those representations: it’s hard out here for a black actor.
I was impressed by Terrence Howard’s confident eccentricity in The Best Man (1999), and impressed by Howard’s charisma, conviction, and cool as a colored pilot in the combat film Hart’s War, and by the depth of his characterization in Dito Montiel’s Fighting (2009), in which Howard played a small-time hustler, Harvey, a charming and melancholy man, who finds an opportunity in a muscular young man who can box, Shawn, played by Channing Tatum. The young man’s attraction to a young woman the hustler had been involved with complicates their professional association. In Fighting, a film that might inspire more consideration, the pain and determination in Terrence Howard’s green eyes as he maneuvers around other men who have more money or social cachet than he does is convincing. About the film, the New York Times film critic Anthony Scott wrote, “Not everything that happens in Fighting entirely makes sense—it’s a fable, after all, and a fable doesn’t necessarily have to—but it breathes with a rough, exuberant realism that you rarely see in movies of its kind” (April 23, 2009). Terrence Howard, as well, was sharp and shining heroism in Red Tails (2012), the most recent telling of the story of the Tuskegee airmen during wartime.
Good intentions can lead to betrayal and disappointment, but they also can lead to the cultivation of virtue, of healthy and moral practice, joy, and material reward, as in the Sunu Gonera theatrical film Pride, starring Terrence Howard. Conflict and competition —which we are often told are a central part of our society, and significant factors in good drama—are driving elements in the film; and considering what we have been told—again and again—it might be thought boorish to blame the film for that inclusion. I am not enough of a fan of sports or of films about sports to know if the tropes in the film Pride might be tired; although I did like Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday and Michael Mann’s Ali, two films with broad canvases. The animation of form is almost all; and this film is alive with emotion, observation, and social detail. In The San Francisco Chronicle writer Ruthe Stein described Terrence Howard as magnetic and the film as appropriately touching—Ruthe Stein said it inspired tears—and Stein declared, “First-time director Sunu Gonera succeeds in building an emotional investment in a hardscrabble swim team that makes it to a state championship meet in the mid-1970s against great odds. You care deeply about the outcome. Waiting to see which swimmer emerges first from the water during an adrenalizing relay race is suspenseful in a personal way, different than watching where a ball winds up” (March 23, 2007). Yet, Geoff Pevere of the Toronto Star thought the “intensely gifted” Terrence Howard towered above a predictable film: “…Howard suggests undercurrents of rage, pain, intelligence and remorse that nothing else in the movie even pretends to” (March 23, 2007).
In Pride, written by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe, Norman Vance Jr., Terrence Howard’s Jim Ellis, a teacher and coach, an ambitious, conscientious, despairing, persevering man, begins to pack up the old Marcus Foster recreation center for closing, but discovers and restores its pool and opens the building’s door as refuge from heat and inertia for a group of basketball-loving boys whose hoop is dismantled and whom are excited about swimming but refuse to be disciplined about schedules, training, or uniforms—and it is not until they take their rickety bus to Philadelphia’s Main Line and play another team that looks down on them and defeats them, and try to laugh the loss off but face their coach’s reprimand and reproach, do they begin to take swimming seriously. The scene in which Howard as Ellis makes plain the limits of ethnic pride and the real value of accomplishment is, as viewers used to say, worth the price of admission. “Ellis isn’t just angry. He’s hurt that his team doesn’t care about self-respect. Giving that speech breaks his heart, and it breaks ours watching him do it,” wrote Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris (March 23, 2007). Wesley Morris, who found the motion picture too like Coach Carter and Gridiron Gang, other movies on sports and at-risk kids, thought Howard and the other actors better than the script, and that the young people were not differentiated enough. Of course, conformity of thought and behavior is one of the problems in any ghetto.
In Pride, the young swimmers move past angry bluster and laughing foolishness, and engage the serious criticism necessary for self-development; and they begin to understand Ellis’s lessons of principle and purpose, and they practice to make themselves genuinely ready for competition. They arrive early for morning preparation, properly suited, and begin laps. Ellis demonstrates technique. He does not merely expect excellence but provides methods to achieve it. The boys are played by young actors who deserve interesting careers, with Nate Parker as Hakim, Evan Ross as Reggie (Diana’s gifted son as a shy, stuttering but eager, respectful boy), and Kevin Phillips as the volatile but caring Andre, who once ran with the criminal older male Franklin, until Andre was shot—and there is one quite capable girl on the swimming team, Willie (Regine Nehy), a small dark ebullient beauty. Their bodies are admirably fine, lean and muscled, flexible and fluid. Kimberly Elise plays a local official and the sister and guardian of one of the boys, the charming, smart, skeptical Sue; and the big black bold Bernie Mac plays Elston, the Marcus Foster recreation center custodian, first ornery then enthusiastic, transformed from angry and discouraged to invigorated. Elston and Ellis become partners, rather than antagonists, and Elston gets the councilwoman Sue to sustain the recreation center, and gets church members to attend a planned swim meet.
Obviously, a film such as Pride, intended as inspiring entertainment based on a true story set in the early 1970s, arrives against a context of expectation and common disappointment and remembered excellence: it can be dismissed with inattention, or evaluated with exacting rigor. It is a good, small film, with the charm, emotion, and intelligence of its performances, its intelligent script, and well-chosen locations and vivid photography making it engaging, the film helmed by a South African director who grew up in the townships and now lives in the west, a man devoted to the specifics of color, framing and lighting. Director Sunu Gonera was helped in the making of this genre movie, this sport film, by cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti and editor Billy Fox, among others.
Genres work as the preferred forms of communication. How many genres exist that can hold African or African-American stories? Which genres are large numbers of people willing to see? Comedies? Musicals? Gangster films? There have been good films—films of drama, history, and intellectual seriousness and artistic experiment—that have been praised by critics and ignored by audiences; and consequently their like rarely are invested in. Thus, artists make films focused on music and sports. And some of us complain. While we yearn for more depth, and more diversity of form, it may be a bit much to blame artists for a predicament they did not create. The message must have a medium. Whatever one knows, one has to watch one film at a time and judge that. Although she thought the film Pride embraced too many clichés, the film critic Cynthia Fuchs of the culture site Pop Matters, whose commentary focused on fit, gleaming bodies and their positioning and also plot, felt compelled to conclude with approval, “First, and importantly, this is an uplift-the-race film where the inspirational coach/teacher/mentor is black. As well-intentioned as characters played by Josh Lucas and Hilary Swank may be, this image (lit and designed with its significance in mind) resonates. This is enhanced by the fact that the kids’ very visible supporters at meets are the ‘community,’ mostly anonymous black faces (parents and church members) who, despite the conspicuous device, do something unusual: they make a worthy political point” (March 27, 2007). Likewise, at the time of the film’s opening, writer Claudia Puig in USA Today commended the film for its display of what an extraordinary thing an ordinary man, Jim Ellis, could do, and what a nuanced and intelligent performance a unique actor, Terrence Howard, could give.
In life, good intentions are sometimes welcomed but more often are fought with indifference at best, or hostility and malice at worse: and so it goes in cinema. In Pride, the presentation of the banal evil of some white people may be a problem of drama, dull drama—it is hard to make that evil feel fresh, stinging—though here an employer’s casual dismissal, while playing office golf, of an employment application from an enthusiastic man, and the chiding of black swimmers with references to their familiarity with handcuffs, and the privileged swimmers refusal to perform in the run-down Negro recreation center are consistent signs. However, that one particular coach (Bink, played by Tom Arnold) would provide lasting opposition—he refused to hire Ellis in 1964 and then ten years later supervises the privileged rivals of Ellis’s team—seems a theatrical conceit, but it is one with meaning. The disregard Jim Ellis himself faced as a young swimmer in 1964 North Carolina still exists for his young charges in 1974 Philadelphia, a time of Afro hairstyles, soul and funk music, and political activity and social conflict: that repetition of rejection has been one of the most painful facts for black elders. There are moments when that awareness and anguish is vivid, and the film is stronger for it. It took long for laws to change, but laws changed more quickly than minds. Similarly, wild—disrespectful, dumb, criminal—elements in the African-American world try to draw the boys away from discipline with the enticement of money and sex and the threat of violence. Yet, the recovery of esteem and promise has taken root. Nate Parker’s Hakim wandering over to a neglected bookshelf and picking up a book out of casual curiosity is proof of his intellectual awakening. One has to scrape the crud off one’s eyes to see people of color whole, something that even black people refuse to do sometimes: the slick criminal Franklin (Gary Sturgis), both attractive and intimidating, a man whom the film’s director has referred to as the bad father (with Ellis as the good father), does not want to give up his hold on the boys; and in resentment and revenge, Franklin trashes the recreation center. It is important to include that villainy too. Still, the young swimmers, with pride, determination, and resilience, maintain their commitment and discipline, and they practice and present themselves as able and respectable competitors—and, while having fun and forming a family and strengthening their community, they win. Life is what you make it: the power is ours.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.