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Film Reviews

Coach Carter (2005) The Vitality of Self Respect

Written by Oliver Campbell

Coach Carter (2005) details the transformation of the Richmond High School Basketball team from losers to champions, but more importantly, from delinquents and degenerates to prospects and role models.  All headed by Ken Carter (Samuel L Jackson), an affluent sporting goods shop owner, driven by the desire to affect change in his community by accepting the job as basketball coach to a team he once played for in his youth. 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure... and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same”

Timo Cruz, Coach Carter (2005).

Before Carter accepts the job, he attends a Richmond Oilers basketball game as they play his sons high school basketball team – St. Francis; the best team in the state.  He sees that the team don’t communicate, are hostile towards each other and above all, are participating in and engaging with all the negative aspects of the community, subsequently holding them back.  Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez) is extremely aggressive and seemingly has an issue with authority.  The audience comes to know that he is also a drug dealer, seemingly due to the pressure of his older cousin, the only male figure in his life.  Kenyon Stone (Rob Brown) has a baby on the way, despite being only 17 and financially unstable.   Junior Battle (Nana Gbewonyo) is leaps and bounds behind his peers academically, and we learn later in the film that his older brother was shot dead before the events of the film.  In his debut role, Channing Tatum plays Lyle, who clearly demonstrates his frantic and scared nature constantly throughout the film.  We also learn that Lyle’s father is locked up and that basketball is the only thing he is passionate about. 

Therefore, Coach Carter (2005) is clearly exploring issues that young people face in such communities.  Issues such as drug dealing, violence, lack of father figures, teenage pregnancy, and how the young people facing these issues, perpetuate it, rather than commit to change.  Obviously, these issues aren’t initially brought about by the people it’s affecting, in fact, where the film is set – Richmond Virginia is rife with these issues. 

“Richmond High only graduate’s 50% of its students, and of those that do graduate, only 6% go to college.”  “In this county, 33% of black males between 18 and 24, get arrested.  Now look at the guy on your left, now look at the guy on your right.  One of you is going to get arrested.  Growing up here in Richmond, your 80% more likely to go to prison, than college.  Those are the numbers, those are some stats for yo ass”.  Ken Carter, Coach Carter (2005).

Carter employs strict rules and regulations, to be able to play for the basketball team.  He makes all players sign contracts, agreeing to maintain a certain grade average.  He also receives weekly progress reports from their teachers (despite an initial disagreement between Carter and other faculty members) to ensure they are progressing.  They are also obliged to sit in the front row of their classes and must wear suit and ties on game days.  Sure enough, they begin to achieve and win multiple tournaments, even travelling to other cities to compete.  Certain players like Junior, Worm, Lyle and Kenyon are all recognised to have talent and the ability to play at a college level.  After winning an out of town tournament but then sneaking off to a party, of which they get busted at by Carter, Cruz utters the naïve sentiment – “we won the tournament, we undefeated, I mean isn’t that what you wanted”. 

Carter is appalled and realises that these kids do not understand what he has been trying to do.  In this scene and the following scenes, we learn that for Carter it wasn’t about winning.  It was about giving them the foundational support needed for them to succeed in life.  For Carter, the community and the system are making the terrible circumstances surrounding these kids worse, by encouraging them to focus solely on basketball.  After locking the gym until the basketball players start achieving academically, Carter causes community uproar, and regional news coverage. 

“These are student athletes. ‘Student’ comes first”

Ken Carter, Coach Carter (2005).

The backlash from the parents and members of the community epitomises everything Carter is trying to change.  This is something he had experienced earlier in the film, as he struggles to convince the principal to convince staff members to give him weekly progress reports.  The Principal states – “You job Mr. Carter is to teach these boys basketball.  I suggest your start doing your job.”, to which Carter replies – “Your job is to educate these students – I suggest you start doing yours”.

In his reply to the community voting him out of his job due to his locking of the school gym, Carter encapsulates the outlook of the film, in the face of such community’s ideologies – “You really need to consider the message your sending these boys by ending the lockout.  It’s the same message that we as a culture send to our professional athletes; and that is that they are above the law.  If these boys cannot honour the simple rules of a basketball contract, how long do you think it’ll be before they’re out there breaking the law?  I played ball here at Richmond High 30 years ago.  It was the same thing then; some of my teammates went to prison, some of them even ended up dead”.

Upon returning to the school to collect his items, Carter finds the team studying in the gym, instead of playing basketball.  It is clear at this point in the narrative, the boys have accepted Carters message.  Even if the rest of the community, has not.  This is where Cruz begins the speech at the top of the article,  symbolising his acceptance of Carter and his morals. This comes after Cruz cousin is shot dead right in front of Cruz. 

Cruz’s words epitomise Carters outlook.  That if you accept responsibility, even in the face of unfortunate circumstance, much like the circumstances surrounding all the basketballs teams lives, your doing so will unconsciously motivate others to do so.  It’s about the vital nature of self-respect, responsibility, and the positive changes that they can have, without you even knowing it. 

“Cruz’s words epitomise Carters outlook. That if you accept responsibility, even in the face of unfortunate circumstance, much like the circumstances surrounding all the basketballs teams lives, your doing so will unconsciously motivate others to do so.”

However, life is no fairy tale, therefore neither is this film. They lose the final game.  But in that lies a message about the harsh reality of life.  Despite their losing, they are unbroken, in fact they are accepted by their community more than ever, and 6 members of the basketball team go onto college, and ultimately a better life.  Coach Carter (2005) is about human growth, in the face of negative circumstances, and critiques the way in which certain communities perpetuate these negative circumstances, Carter ultimately providing an alternative route to a better life for disadvantaged youth.