Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 15, 2005)
Apparently audiences still love movies about teachers who work in challenging environments and succeed despite the odds. 2005’s Coach Carter emerged as a minor sleeper hit. Its gross of $67 million didn’t rewrite any record books, but for a low-key, low-budget, low-wattage tale of a high school basketball coach, that’s pretty darned solid.
Set in Richmond, California, local businessman Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) gets the invitation to take over the basketball head coaching position at Richmond High School, his old alma mater. The team lacks discipline, and current coach Ray White (Mel Winkler) tires of the struggles. Against his better judgment - and the wishes of his teen son Damien (Robert Ri’chard) who plays at rival private school St. Francis - Carter decides to take the job as coach of the Oilers.
Carter comes into a situation with unruly and disruptive kids. He finds that they immediately disrespect him and don’t think much of his new system. He greets resistance and a few students walk out on the team. The rest find that they’ll enter a whole new world of workouts and discipline. Their parents don’t cotton to Carter’s requirements like a 2.3 GPA and dress code so they fight him along with their kids.
Off the court, we get to know a little more about some of the students. Worm (Antwon Tanner) is a nutty self-styled playa, while Kenyon (Rob Brown) deals with his girlfriend’s pregnancy. Lyle (Channing Tatum) lives in the world of the Generic White Boy. The volatile Cruz (Rick Gonzalez) initially holds a grudge against Carter, but as he sees a life of drug dealing before him, he decides to return to the team and prove his worth to the coach.
Back on the home front, Damien decides to leave St. Francis and come to play for his old man. He transfers to Richmond and agrees to adhere to even higher standards than those Carter requires of the others. This inevitably means a rough adjustment for the smart, sophisticated Damien; not only is he the coach’s son, but he’s also not a good fit among the street-smart kids.
Carter’s system finds immediate results on the court. The Oilers win their first game under their new coach, largely due to their superior conditioning. Carter still expects more, though, and pushes the kids to do more. The movie follows their various successes and setbacks along with all the pressures Carter faces.
As someone who works in public schools with an essentially urban, largely African-American population, I should appreciate movies like Carter. After all, they’ll be seen mostly by the kinds of kids with whom I work, and they present the potential to inspire. Heck, if a handful of students see Carter and it encourages them to shape up their own attitudes, then it’s time well spent.
So how come I can’t get past just how damned predictable and cliché Carter is? Well-meaning it may be, but the film never rises above all its genre conventions. Slow, long, and genuinely boring, I can’t help but feel like I’ve already seen the movie - and seen it many times.
Carter starts on a rough note just because Ken’s decision to coach the team makes so little sense. We get no backstory about any interest in kids, coaching or education. Instead, Carter takes the job essentially because there’d be no movie otherwise. The only remote reason given is that he attended the school and played on the team; the movie never attempts to explain his choice in any other way.
Story-telling fares no better. Carter goes to the team, dictates his terms, then repeats them ad nauseam as the film progresses. Here’s the movie: Carter lectures the kids or related adults. They gripe about his tactics. He holds firm and they come around to his side. Lather, rinse, bore.
Truly, Carter is one long lecture wrapped up into an attempt at a feel-good tale. The lead character never speaks in anything other than bumper sticker platitudes, and the absence of concise personalities drags the pedantic dialogue down even further. The kids never evolve above the standard ghetto clichés, and they behave in inconsistent ways. One minute they hate Carter, the next they love him. The film presents a series of scenes in which kids leave and swear never to return, but there they are minutes later with hats in hand.
Carter himself remains a bland stereotype. Does the man ever work? The film includes one token scene to explain how he rarely goes to his store but doesn’t really try to make sense of the situation. And what about his girlfriend? She plays only a minor role in the proceedings; she’s there for the occasional moral support and nothing else.
One might expect some depth from the relationship between Ken and Damien. One would expect incorrectly. That side of things receives very little exposition, as the kid gets lumped in with the rest of the team most of the time. I’d think some tension would result from the presence of the coach’s son on the squad, but the film does nothing to explore that topic.
Actually, that reminds me of one of the movie’s many inconsistencies. Damien’s a freshman but he mentions his high SAT scores. Maybe things have changed since I was in high school, but I don’t think many freshmen take the SAT, especially not at the very start of ninth grade. College is a long time down the road for a kid in that position, but the film treats him like a senior.
Odd elements abound in Carter. Why does a bald black kid make fun of a bald black man’s head? Why do all these Richmond girls sound like they’re from Brooklyn? Don’t transfer students have to sit for a while before they can play? Maybe that’s only in college, but I don’t think you can skip from one school to another in the middle of the year and still be allowed to suit up immediately.
Indicative of the lazy filmmaking on display, those behind Carter don’t even seem sure where it takes place. When most people hear “Richmond”, they assume “Virginia”, and the flick does little to disavow us of this notion. For instance, we learn that the Oilers will play Arlington HS. That seemed like an odd geographical choice since Arlington VA is about 100 miles from Richmond, but I guess it’s possible. We also are told that Carter attended George Mason University after college, and that made sense since GMU is also roughly 110 miles from Richmond.
As I watched the movie, I slowly started to realize that it takes place in Richmond California. Maybe I was so focused on Virginia that I missed other clues, but you must admit that the hints mentioned above sure lead us toward Richmond VA instead of Richmond CA. Indeed, the original events did happen in CA.
There is an Arlington HS in California, so it’s possible the Oilers played them. However, it’s 400 miles from Richmond, so that seems unlikely. And Carter actually attended George Fox University in Oregon, not George Mason University in Virginia.
So why did the filmmakers make such obvious geographical goofs? I’m convinced that they didn’t realize the film took place in California either! I figure they assumed Richmond and didn’t figure out their error until they’d already shot some footage.
Or maybe I’m wrong - who knows? But I do know that this is a sloppy film. It shouldn’t be that tough for the audience to figure out whether it takes place in Virginia or California. It also shouldn’t be so tough to create a movie that’s more than just a series of problems, lectures, and statistics. One big crummy sermon after another, Coach Carter annoys consistently and entertains infrequently.