Though he appreciates the effort from all involved, Judge Bill Gibron still wished this formulaic sports movie would have swum freestyle more instead of sticking with the same old cinematic backstroke.
There are no shortcuts to a dream.
When he was a college swimmer in the '60s, Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard, Idlewild) experienced horrific racism first hand. It even got him in trouble with the law. Ten years later, life is still just as hard. Finding it difficult to gain employment (he is turned down for a teaching/coaching position at a ritzy white private school), he ends up part of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Assigned to a center about to be closed, Ellis meets up with longtime facility fixture Elston (Bernie Mac, Mr. 3000). Unhappy that the only job he's ever known is about to be snatched out from underneath him, Elston gets off to a shaky start with Ellis. But once the cranky custodian sees that Ellis is interested in the local kids, he comes around. Eventually they repair the indoor pool and inspire some teens to take up swimming—not as fun, but as a foundation for something called "PDR": pride, determination, and resilience. When the team starts competing, however, they confront the same ignorance that clouded Ellis's past. With the help of a concerned councilwoman (Kimberly Elise, Diary of a Mad Black Woman) and the local community, this determined mentor hopes that he will instill more than mere Pride within his athletes. It will be like swimming upstream, however.
There is only one thing that's original about the otherwise rote retread known as Pride. No, it's not the story's swimming angle. As susceptible to stereotyping as the premise is, the Olympic-sized pool at the center of the narrative is merely substituting for a basketball court, a football field, or an inner-city baseball diamond. Race is also a non-issue here, though the movie makes damn sure we remember the rampant prejudice individuals of color experienced throughout the '60s and '70s. The concept of intolerance is so linked to this kind of storyline that, frankly, we'd be flabbergasted if the white folks situated along the margins didn't act all uppity and superior. Truthfully, no athletics-oriented film is brave enough to tackle the real issues of inequality and social structure buried at the base of such a real-life situation. If you think that star subject matter Jim Ellis and his means of motivation are out of the ordinary, think again. He's no Jaime Escalante or Sean Porter. He's no Coach Carter, Joe Clark, or Norman Dale. As the standard man of principles who expects nothing less than heart and heroism from his ragtag group of fringe-dwelling disciples, we've seen his kind of controlled compassion hundreds of times.
No, the single element that makes Pride worth watching is the exceptional (and quite unusual) acting turns from stars Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac. Both men, noted for their presence as performers, tone down the bravado and bring up the humanity, turning their emblematic men into intriguing three-dimensional entities. True, we except subtlety from Howard; he didn't earn an Oscar nod for Hustle and Flow by chewing up the scenery. But here, he's shockingly subdued, trading on the subject's genial charms to give a decidedly laidback interpretation of authority. Ellis doesn't scream and yell, threatening his charges into confronting their own inner lacking. Instead, he circumvents the situation, waiting for the appropriate moment to strike. After a devastating loss at their first meet, the team reacts with typical misguided swagger. Howard (and the film, for that matter) lets the frivolity play out, cementing his students' stupidity. Only then, after the sequence seems to end, does the coach respond, and his carefully considered words are so cutting as to be lethal. It's one of several stellar sequences. Mac is also amazing as the downtrodden janitor Elston. What could have been a cranky old sidekick character instead comes across as noble, invested, and very emotional. Toward the end, when PDR participates in the championships, his reactions are heartbreaking.
The rest of the cast is acceptable, interchangeable in their approach and differentiated by looks alone. Unfortunately, from a narrative standpoint, there are some underdeveloped elements. Of course, this being the urban jungles of the early '70s, there's a slick criminal hustler type whose jive jerk spiel makes Rudy Ray Moore sound like the Rev. Jesse Jackson (he's about as threatening as your inebriated grandpa), and our female love interest for Ellis—a stern councilwoman named Sue Davis—is more of an afterthought than a rule of attraction. Indeed, most of Pride is made up of motion picture M&Ms—meaningful montages—sound-backed shortcuts to illustrate training, competition, and life in Philadelphia's poorer sections. Granted, it's hard to complain about songs like "Backstabbers" and "Strawberry Letter 23," but these scenes solidify the film's redundant feeling. In the Big Book of Cinematic Clichés, Pride takes out at least a couple of chapters, if not the whole tome. It's only because Howard and Mac are so authentic, and the story's focus is so inherently manipulative (you can't help but champion these kids' efforts), that we maintain any interest whatsoever. Even South African director Sunu Gonera has nothing new or novel to offer. He's too studied in the ways of the West to enliven our ennui. All period-piece posturing and feel-good gratuity aside, this is one unexceptional effort.
Lionsgate delivers a wonderful technical transfer of this title. All its dramatic and narrative flaws aside, this is a fine-looking film, and the 1.85:1 image provided is absolutely stunning. Gonera's eye for composition and color are exceptional, and this DVD captures his aesthetic with great respect. The sonic situation is equally good. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is multidimensional and directional, while the 2.0 Stereo track is barebones but bright. The speakers really come alive when the classic '70s soul swaggers across the soundtrack, and the dialogue is always discernible. As for added content, Gonera delivers a very entertaining audio commentary, discussing his African roots, his creative choices, and working with his talented cast and crew. It's a little on the ra-ra/cheerleading side of situations, but the first-time filmmaker is excused for being proud of his efforts. Elsewhere, we can see a deleted scene, an extension of the competition sequences in the film, and more of those amazing M&Ms. Finish up with a huge number of preview trailers, and you've got a decent digital package, one that accurately reflects the value of the movie it is supplementing.
As they say in the vernacular, there is no "I" in team. Unfortunately, there's plenty of the vowel in "derivative," "tired," and "routine." Pride won't offend your sensibilities, and may even move you to a cloyingly earned tear or two. But it may be time to retire the entire genre before even more marginal sports get their moment in the cinematic sun. Zorbing, anyone?
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• Commentary by Director Sunu Gonera
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