Now Showing: Glory Road

Glory Road is a standard sports movie, a cliché really, but a pretty good cliché and made more interesting by being based on an actual series of events. Anyone who watched the NCAA basketball championship in 1966 remembers the sense of incredulity as the team from Texas Western, made up completely of black players, conquered Adolph Rupp's juggernaut from Kentucky, who were considered unbeatable. It was as though something from outside reality was occurring. The game has been touted as the most important contests in college sports history, and if you try to think of something else to put in its place, the designation comes to seem fairly sensible.

Josh Lucas, who plays Texas Western coach Don Haskins, does a creditable job in the role. Lucas gives us an admirable Don Haskins but not one who necessarily causes the heart to soar. When one considers what it must have been to be a coach at a school like Texas Western in the 1960s, his character seems fairly reasonable.  It's not an outstanding performance but it is competent. And that's about what can be said for all the other portrayals. This is a plot driven story and all the actors have to do is not to foul things up. Emily Deschanel, as Haskins's faithful wife, is markedly different from her role as Temperance Brennan on Bones and fits the model of being just what she's supposed to be, and no more.

The racism the team encountered on the way to the championship is realistic -- nasty without being overdrawn. The film shows that victory was enough to overcome traditional attitudes for some, but certainly not for all. Director James Gartner tiptoes around the racism of Adolph Rupp, played with surly arrogance by Jon Voight. One senses his bigotry but nothing he actually says, not even during intense sideline exhortations of his team, steps over the line into outright racial slurs. It has been reported that the Rupp family expressed strong views about the famed coach not being shown as a racist, and perhaps that had some influence.

The style of the black players is much more in keeping with today's modes of behavior than is historically accurate. In their conversation and interaction with their white teammates they are much more 21st than 20th century. But, it's a forgivable anachronism. The actors' bodies are also much more in keeping with modern day basketball. It was not considered a contact sport in the 1960s, and for the most part, players were not as muscular as they are today. It's easy to forget that, then, the game was often spoken of as being for sissies. Football was widely considered to be the sport for real men, particularly by those who were incapable of playing either.

For people born after 1960, it's hard to grasp the temper of those days, the pure normality of viewing black people as not only inferior but as somehow outside the bounds of human emotion. It's good to have a movie now and then to remind us of it, and if it doesn't get things perfectly right, that's regrettable but to be expected.

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