It can’t help but seem like a somewhat sad day in film when mediocrity starts to look and feel good. “Remember the Titans” epitomizes adequacy in filmmaking today, offering up a big star in a fine performance, an inspiring story that never totally stalls out, and a good-looking enough total package that one leaves the theater feeling satiated. But is perfecting the art of middle-of-the-road really what should be applauded in movie making today? From the frantic energy of an indie like Pi to the out of control angst of Reservoir Dogs to the intellectual art of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series, it seems like we should expect more–even from Hollywood–when it comes to printing celluloid. “Remember the Titans” is perfectly effective when judged on its own merits, but is that really enough anymore? Well, probably, especially if you’re not in the mood to think.
So what does happen when Disney Pictures makes sweet love with Jerry Bruckheimer? We get a movie about how group sing-alongs and playing the dozens is the real key to conquering racism. Who knew? Bet those civil rights activists in the ’60s wish they’d been aware. Titans is based on a true story about the 1971 integration of an Alexandria, Virginia, high school and its football team. Because football is a way of life in the South and all that hullabaloo, football takes on an unusual amount of metaphorical potency in the midst of a still mostly segregated southern town. Brought in to coach the biracial team at T.C. Williams High is Herman Boone, played by the ever-symbol of black identity today, Denzel Washington. Replacing the current honkey coach, Bill Yoast (Will Patton), who had a strong track record of his own, Boone has to win over angry whiteys who’d rather see him sink than win when it comes to foozball.
Initially, all the white boy ballers balk at the idea of playing under a black man, and threaten to walk. But when Yoast is brought on as assistant coach, the white boys decide to play too. Great. That means it’s time for football boot camp! But the white boys and the black boys want to ride on segregated buses to get there. So Boone makes each white boy sit next to a black boy! But once they get there the white boys and the black boys don’t want to socialize with each other. So Boone makes them get to know every teammate of the other race! But the white boys and the black boys can’t learn to function as an effective football team. So Boone makes them figure it out themselves until the two leaders of each race smash their football helmets together because they like each other! Whatever. Men are weird, is what I say. It’s all relatively endearing nevertheless.
Once the team learns how to sing Temptations songs in the shower together, they come back to town and start a winnin’. While the football team and its coach live most of the film in a void devoid of any actual racial cultural context, they encounter some bad bigoted behavior as they start up the season. But a brick in the window and black and white fans in the stands who won’t sit together aren’t going to stop these guys when it comes to scoring on the field. So then everyone finally begins to learn…well, you know the routine. The movie’s best moments feature the lovely face of Mr. Washington mind-f***ing his players, although his character gets forced to learn from his white coach peer that he can’t just be obsessed with verbally beating the crap out of his players, sometimes he has to be a tiny bit nice too. Can’t we all just get along? In the world of Remember the Titans, the answer is a yes without all those messy riots.
The boys in the football band are led primarily by quarterback Gerry Bertier, wonderfully doughily played by Ryan Hurst (Rules of Engagement). His black buddy in arms is Julius “Big Ju” Campbell, played enigmatically well by Wood Harris (Above the Rim). Late-comer shining quarterback to the team, Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass, is played hunkily by ex-Yalie Kip Pardue (But I’m a Cheerleader). (Somebody, thank god, thought to cast actors big enough to be believable as football players and look more than capable of ramming the crap out of each other during game scenes.) And in what may be the winner of the Most Precocious Performance of the Year by a Child Actor is nine-year old Hayden Panettiere as Coach Yoast’s football obsessed yet oddly charming daughter.
While “Remember the Titans is tried-and-true in every sense of the phrase, the odd conglomeration of Hollywoodites that led to its creation is just about the only original thing about it. From the man who just got finished torturing us with Coyote Ugly, Bruckheimer gives us a sentimental ode on racial harmony? Strange brew. Director Boaz Yakin (Fresh, A Price Above Rubies) does a just fine job filling his job as director for rent, and writer Gregory Allen Howard should be commended for penning an entire screenplay that doesn’t challenge anything or anybody in any way. Maybe there’s something to be said for that in the end. Maybe not. Speaking of the end, “Remember the Titans” in the end is a fine film and certainly a pleasant trip, although if Jeffrey Lyons calls it great, don’t say I didn’t warn you.