A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to see the documentary Undefeated. Chronicling the underdog story of the Manassas High School’s football team in North Memphis, Undefeated appeared on the public radar at South by Southwest Festival where it caught the attention of Harvey Weinstein who closed a reported 7-figure deal for the distribution and remake rights. Undefeated was also very well received at the Toronto Film Festival.
Undefeated is directed by Dan Lindsay, 33 and T.J. Martin, 32. Neither had extensive experience prior and they met in 2008 while making Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong, which Lindsay directed and Martin edited. While the film sounds juvenile, it is actually very well reviewed and is a story about a beer pong champion who has to grow up but is desperately clinging on to his past. That was Lindsay’s first full-length film while Martin had previously directed a film A Day in the Hype of America, which was about Y2K. Reading interviews, it was quite apparent that neither Lindsay nor Martin expected the film to receive as much publicity as it did.
Undefeated is the story of the 2009 season of the Manassas Tiger football team. Historically a very weak program, Lindsay and Martin follow as the Tigers seek to end their 110-year stretch without a playoff win. Manassas is almost all African-America and the majority of the players come from impoverished backgrounds.
There are four principal characters who Martin & Lindsay chronicle. The character that receives the most attention is Bill Courtney, a former high school football coach and current lumber salesman who began volunteering at Manassas as the head football coach in 2003. There were three players who received most of the attention. O.C. Brown, raised by his sister and his grandmother, was the most talented of the players. With a chance to play college football, Martin & Lindsay document O.C.’s struggle to qualify academically and his quest to improve his ACT score. O.C.’s story is actually what drew Martin and Lindsay to Manassas. Needing the help of a tutor, O.C. lived with an assistant coach during the week in a more affluent part of town because no tutors would travel to his neighborhood and one of their producers had seen a story of O.C. and his double life and presented it to them. It was only when they met Bill Courtney that they decided to broaden the scope of the film. Montrail, or “Money” as he was called, lost his father at a young age. Very intelligent, “Money” damages his ligaments and we watch as he attempts to recover in time to play his last game. The final spotlighted player is Chavis. Having returned to high school after 15 months at a juvenile penitentiary, Martin and Lindsay paint a portrait of a very angry troubled young man and take us through his transformation to a mature young adult.
Undefeated struck me as resembling a Hollywood feature film more so than a documentary and it is very easy to forget that you are watching a documentary. As evidenced by the trailer, Undefeated featured very quick cuts. To shoot the film, Martin & Lindsay rented an apartment in Memphis for nine months and shot intensely for about four or five months. Over the course of those four or five months, they shot over 500 hours worth of footage. That’s an insane amount of footage, over 3 weeks worth and a shooting ration of 250:1. They rented an apartment in Memphis for 9 months, came to school everyday and even shot things they knew they wouldn’t include in the movie like a school talent show to gain the trust of the kids and to show a commitment to them that they were there to tell their story honestly and truthfully. This strategy pays dividends and as a result, the kids act so natural and camera because they were so used to its presence. Undefeated features two different kinds of styles. The first is an “observational” style where Lindsay and Martin take on a “fly-on-the-wall” persona and the camera is not acknowledged. The other style is type of implied interview scene where an individual is speaking to the camera as if they were answering questions but you never hear the questions asked.
As mentioned previously, Undefeated was very critically acclaimed. It currently has a 94% rating on RottenTomatoes with 65 positive reviews to 4 negative reviews and an 88% audience rating. Undefeated also won the Academy Away for best documentary feature in what was considered a bit of an upset. Some of the negative reviews contended that Martin and Lindsay focused on football too much instead of delving further into the compelling personal stories although they claim that was far from their original intention but once they began shooting, the drama was too much to ignore.
Given that the film didn’t circle around a social problem, deciphering the filmmaker’s goals is rather difficult. While it was a narrative, the filmmakers definitely tried to inspire conversations about race and class and the relation of them. We wanted a celebratory narrative in a community that often times would never have it,” Lindsay say of their original intentions for the film. “Hopefully we could show the potential in a place where a lot of people think there isn’t any potential, but never shy away from the reality, so that a conversation can happen.”
Martin says that he wanted people to appreciate and value the opportunities that he’s had in my own life but he never set out to make an issues-based film or have an agenda. Really though, the main goal was to share a narrative, to give people an experience and make them get lost in the movie. I think they were rather successful in these goals. The story does not seem like a documentary and it’s easy to get lost in. While I’m not sure it elicits conversations for me, it certainly made me think about class and race relations.
In conclusion, I really quite enjoyed Undefeated. While I believe some of the critics were justified, Martin and Lindsay struck an impressive balance between sport and personal tale. While on the surface it seems like its about football, it chronicles the lives of three adolescents on the cusp of manhood as well as the unlikely relationships they form with their coach. It eventually builds into a coming of age film of a different type. Martin and Lindsay were concerned because when you hear the description of the film it is easy to say, “well I’ve heard that before,” but they took a story that sounds familiar and turned into a riveting, fresh experience.