‘Feel good’ movies can be a little tricky. Despite coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, these films almost always come with some degree of predictability. That’s why it’s imperative that their story be a good one and be told in a way that compels us even though we can usually see where they may be going.
“Remember the Titans” not only faces the ‘feel good’ challenge but it’s also a football movie which brings along its own set of predictable tropes. But director Boaz Yakin manages thanks to a steady dedication to his characters and a truly inspiring story set in the tinderbox of the racially divided South. It doesn’t hurt to have Denzel Washington as your lead – an actor who at that time had already shown an exceptional range and the ability to bring emotional depth to any character he played.
In the Fall of 1971 the city of Alexandria, Virginia consolidated its high schools and formed T. C. Williams High School. It was the last step in fully integrating the city’s school system and was met with immediate pushback from many in the white community. African-American Herman Boone (Washington) is hired to coach the football team, a position many expected to be filled by Bill Yoast (Will Patton). This infuriates many of the white players who played under Yoast before the integration and their parents who expected him to coach their kids.
It’s not like Coach Boone is thrilled with the position he is thrust into. He had faced something similar earlier in his career and felt guilty for taking Yoast’s spot. But after sensing the enthusiasm and pressure from the black community he reluctantly agrees. And to help curb the boiling public outrage he asks an equally reluctant Yoast to stay on as an assistant coach. The racial tensions in the city are reflected on the team and even among coaches. But if Boone and Yoast can get on the same page, maybe they can not only bring the football team together but the townsfolk as well.
“Remember the Titans” is based on a true story which helps it through some of its more conventional moments. Most importantly it always remains character-driven whether it’s dealing directly on the football field or telling the story of two families (the Boones and the Yoasts) and how they’re both effected by the groundswell of racial enmity.
In many ways “Remember the Titans” is a straight-forward and at times by-the-books football movie. We get the team slowly coming together when no one thought it was possible. We get the player who turns his back on his teammates but sees the light in the nick of time. We get the key injury to a big player that inspires the team before the big game. At the same time it shrewdly weaves in several thought-provoking threads. Take the historical frankness in its depiction of the racial landscape during the early 70’s. Or in how it slyly shows the indoctrination of ignorance and hate particularly on our children.
And of course there are the performances led by Denzel Washington. This is yet another role that he sinks himself into. It’s a fiercely authentic portrayal of Herman Boone that never feels like a caricature. Will Patton’s tempered, restrained performance does a good job of conveying a conflicted man bouncing back-and-forth between expectations and decency. And a 10-year-old Hayden Panettiere is a darling scene-stealer as Coach Yoast’s outspoken football savvy daughter.
It’s a shame that it would take something as trivial as football to break through the ugly wall of racism but it does make for an inspiring and still relevant story. Like most of these things dramatic liberties were taken. Not all of the timelines match up and not every character is in-sync with their real inspiration. But the beating heart of the story is still powerful and pertinent which makes this film not only highly watchable entertainment but a thought-provoking (and hopefully in some ways enlightening) crowdpleaser.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS