Give Judge Michael Rankins a butane lighter and a pull of the old index finger, and he'll show you "passing glory."
They didn't just make shots. They made history.
Hoosiers, only with black guys.
Facts of the Case
When Father Joseph Verrett (Andre Braugher, Homicide: Life On The Street) arrives as all-black St. Augustine Prep's new history teacher, he's the first black Roman Catholic priest most people in 1965 New Orleans have ever seen. Father Verrett, whose quick temper and passion for social justice got him into hot water with the Monsignor back in Baltimore, just wants to fit quietly into his new surroundings, under the watchful eye of his old friend and mentor, Father Bob Grant (Rip Torn, Men In Black). But when St. Aug's basketball squad suddenly loses its coach to a white junior college, Father Bob presses the younger priest into reluctant service.
The St. Augustine Purple Knights, led by Travis Porter (Sean Squire, American Dreams), are an outstanding team—the best in New Orleans…maybe. All-white Jesuit High holds the official city roundball championship, but thanks to Jim Crow, Jesuit never plays "colored" schools like St. Aug. So neither side really knows who the Big Easy's best team is.
Father Verrett thinks it's high time things changed.
The words "based on a true story" always make me cringe. The last really good "based on a true story" movie I recall seeing was Fargo, which, despite the affirmation of its opening titles, is not really based on a true story. So I went into Passing Glory—whose plot comes from the real-life high school experiences of its screenwriter, character actor Harold Sylvester (An Officer And A Gentleman), the first African American awarded an athletic scholarship at Tulane University—with some trepidation.
I need not have fretted. Passing Glory is a solidly entertaining film that manages to make light work of juggling the weighty subject of racism in the pre-desegregation South and the feel-good clichés of a sports movie. Produced by NBA legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson and directed by Steve James, whose high school basketball documentary Hoop Dreams was one of the most compelling films of the 1990s, Passing Glory clips along like a "Showtime" fast break, propelled by an engaging lead performance by Andre Braugher.
From his first moments on camera, Braugher owns the role of Father Verrett. One of the more underappreciated actors of this generation, Braugher casts a remarkably balanced and human shadow, avoiding the pitfall of making his protagonist either too saintly or over-the-top. He is equally at home expressing self-righteous indignity and gentle warmth—no small feat. Braugher finds wonderful complements in a talented cast that includes Rip Torn as the kindly senior priest, Bill Nunn as the father of Travis, St. Augustine's star player, and the incomparable Ruby Dee as Travis's wise blind grandmother.
As is the case in the film Hoosiers and the TV series The White Shadow, the St. Aug team members are either caricatures or faintly drawn ciphers. But as in both of the previously mentioned hoops dramas, the kids also seem genuine. I would have liked a stronger presence than Sean Squire in the pivotal role of Travis, but then, almost any young actor would be somewhat overpowered sharing the screen by the charismatic Braugher. Thanks to the expertise of director James, the basketball sequences in Passing Glory feel alive and authentic.
It's also to James's credit that the film keeps itself on an even keel despite the risk of being swamped by the omnipresent clichés in Sylvester's debut script: the young firebrand priest who rankles his more conservative superiors; the small, disadvantaged team vs. the better-funded squad from the big school; the son who rebels against his racist redneck father; the kid who could have been a star if he hadn't made some unwise life choices; the community meeting to decide the fate of the team; the coach's inspirational halftime speech; the final contest that's decided by a buzzer-beating shot. James makes all of these hoary elements not only work, but also creates a bit of low-wattage movie magic.
The portrait of Southern life during the throes of the civil rights movement resonates even more vividly than the basketball. James and Sylvester present a world whose mores, forty years later, seem both shockingly alien and eerily familiar. Yet, hatred and outrage don't the heart of this story, as often happens in films depicting this tragic period of American history, but perseverance and hope. As vile as the racism recalled here was—and in too many hidden corners of our society, still is—Passing Glory shows that, given the proper forum, old ways that die hard can indeed die.
Sadly, Warner Bros.' DVD release proves once again that a back-catalog telefilm has less chance of being shown love than a black priest in a Louisiana diner circa 1965. The video and audio here fare barely better than what you might have done recording the film off cable using your own VCR—adequate, but not worth writing home about. On top of this, there's not a supplement anywhere to be found. I'll wager that Harold Sylvester, who modeled the character of Travis Porter after himself, would have given his eye teeth to sit down for an interview to talk about what must have been a cathartic experience, seeing his story come to life. Too bad no one asked.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Line of the week: When Father Verrett makes his first appearance at St. Augustine, one of his incredulous students wonders aloud, "Why would a brother want to become a father?" Yes, then as now, celibacy was a tough sell.
Don't let the fact that it's a period sports movie keep you from checking out Passing Glory. A fine cast, smooth direction, and a heartwarming story make this one a slam-dunk.
Give Warner Bros. a technical foul for not dressing up this worthy film with a more credible DVD release. Father Verrett and his high-flying hoopsters are free to go. Court is in recess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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