Glory Road (2006) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for some violence and language
Running Time: 106 min.

Cast: Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Jon Voight, Sam Jones II, Damaine Radcliff, Al Shearer, Alphonso McAuley, Austin Nichols, Tatyana Ali, Wes Brown
Director: James Gartner

Screenplay: Chris Cleveland
Review published January 20, 2006

It's evident to anyone that has seen enough historical or biographical movies that the term "Based on a true story" has no real, practical meaning.  Hollywood has almost always changed the real story of what happened in order to make for a more palatable audience-pleasing experience, and in the case of Glory Road, to make political points, even if they may be somewhat revisionist in nature.  As a film critic, this presents a bit of a challenge, as we have two ways we can approach the film: we can either review it based on how well it presents the real-life story and its significance to the audience or we can ignore what's factual and what's not, and just take it on its merits as a movie, regardless of whether it is 100% accurate or 100% hogwash.  For the purposes of this review, and to save myself the homework and a huge headache, I will employ the latter, for the most part, although I must say that it was quite difficult to not feel completely manipulated by the presentation of this film.

Yes, it is based on the true story of the 1966 Texas Western Miners, who, in the face of a supercharged racial climate, took a predominantly Black team all the way to victory in the NCAA Finals.  We learn how the coach of the team, Don Haskins (Lucas, Stealth), a former high school girls basketball coach not satisfied to turn in yet another mediocre season for the school, recruited the best players his school could afford.  In this case, those players were mostly African-American, which ruffled many feathers in the school and community, who saw this move as not representing their values, racist though they may be.  The team is a huge success in terms of their ability to win games, looking as though they were headed for an undefeated season.  However, as the team gains notoriety, so too do they raise the ire of the people in communities that didn't like to see a Black team having much success, and the team threatened to fall apart at the seams from the monumental pressure of their continued success.

Perhaps the easiest comparison to make is to note the similarities between Glory Road and a similar vehicle, Remember the Titans.  Both are sports films produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (National Treasure, King Arthur), set in nearly identical eras revolving around a successful team subjected to racism and constant persecution on their road to victory.  Both are also very liberal (I don't mean in terms of ideology, although the shoe probably fits) when it comes to presenting facts about the events of the season, and both are so conscious of trying not to be racist in their depictions of race relations, they share the irony of patronizing to the point of encroaching into racist areas themselves Some of the most egregiously racist events of the film were fabricated for dramatic purposes, and It's as if the makers of the film are the ones that can't see beyond the color of the players, as almost every scene, conversation, or moment of character development revolves around the fact that these players are Black first, basketball players second, and actual three-dimensional people dead last.

While many viewers will be generally agreeable with the message of the film, i.e. Black men are not inferior basketball players, or inferior anything for that matter, the heavy-handed approach may not meet well with some.  Race and racism have always been a very hot-button issue, especially in some communities, so I have no doubts as to the varying reactions to the charged but well-meaning film's underlying themes.

There is some dispute as to whether coach Haskins' decision to play the all-Black starting five players was due to a sense of sending a moral message or if he were merely just trying to win the game.  The coach and players have said in interviews that the latter is what occurred, but this is Hollywood after all, and they never let the truth get in the way of a ripping good yarn.  Unfortunately, by doing so, the claims of Haskins (the film-represented one, not the real one) of being color-blind and in wanting to field the best team to ensure victory is diminished in favor of posturing and spectacle, which makes the movie as a whole seem very manipulative when it should have been more thoughtful.

Another particular personal annoyance: Kentucky's player, future popular NBA coach Pat Riley, is mentioned almost exclusively as the player on that team to do everything. Although they had many players that were worth noting, Riley's recognizable name made it seem like the Miners were playing Pat Riley, and not an entire team filled with the best talent in the nation.

For all of my quibbling, the film does tend to work when it should, on the basketball court, with first-time director James Gartner doing a very fine job in creating the appropriate tension and drama, even if it always seems convenient that nearly every big game comes down to the final seconds.   Solid acting by all of the players does help, with a particularly strong presence created by Josh Lucas as the opportunistic coach willing to do whatever it took to secure victory for his school, team, and himself. 

So, it all comes down to you as to whether or not you come away liking or loathing Glory Road.  Those looking for a true-to-life account on what actually happened during the 1966 season, you won't find a great deal of truth here.  Those looking for a good movie, regardless of whether or not the story is accurate, will probably appreciate it as a well-made sports film, filled with an interesting racial subtext that gives the games an extra level of interest beyond whether the team wins or loses.

My personal take:  I like Glory Road on a technical and, to some extent, emotional level, and do enjoy it purely as a sports drama level, but the plot manipulations and phony Hollywood contrivances during the off-the-court scenes keeps me from being truly enthusiastic in my overall praise.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo