'Undefeated' on the gridiron of life

Updated: 2012-02-20 13:47


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It can't be easy making Sean "Diddy" Combs cry, but Oscar-nominated documentary film "Undefeated" did -- four times.

"I cried like a baby in my house," the rap mogul, fashion impresario, actor and show business entrepreneur told Reuters.

On its surface, which in this case is the football field, "Undefeated" is a tale of athletes who mature during their high school football season. But scratch that surface and the movie bleeds the stuff of human drama -- overcoming hardship, sacrifice, personal growth, human bonding, love.

Combs, a high school player himself before injury took him off the field and put him on the road to rap music stardom, saw all of that on the big screen. And when asked to put his stamp of celebrity on "Undefeated" as executive producer, he agreed.

Winning his backing is not unlike what happened to 2009's "Precious." That movie had screened at festivals and earned critical raves before Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on to support it as executive producers and tireless promoters.

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" went on to earn six nominations and win two, for best supporting actress, Mo'Nique, and screenwriting, Geoffrey Fletcher.

To be sure, Combs knows his name brings media attention to a documentary that otherwise might not get any. He is quick to say he doesn't need recognition or financial reward. His goal is to get "Undefeated" seen by audiences because its tale of character building and personal growth is one that should be heard by all.

"I just fell in love with the movie," he said. "I fell in love with the way the coach interacted with the kids ... and just the spirit of the entire area of North Memphis."


North Memphis is an impoverished area of Memphis, Tennessee, and the kids on its Manassas High School team are mostly African American. Many have been raised in single-parent homes, and some have already been in jail. The school, founded in 1899, had never won a football playoff. More prosperous schools paid it to play games because its team was easy to beat.

Then, in 2004, Bill Courtney, who owned a lumberyard near the school, volunteered to coach. A former college football player at the University of Mississippi, he admittedly just loves the game and loves to coach.

But once Courtney, who's white, started to instruct the players in the game, he became their leader in life. In his players, he saw himself -- a young boy raised by a single mom who longed for male guidance at home and school as much as on the gridiron. Race doesn't play much of a role, if any, in his relationship with the layers, and it is almost never mentioned in the documentary.

"Undefeated" isn't about the game so much as it is about how the game reveals the character of the people who play it, according to Courtney. It shows people who we all can become with a little guidance, support and love.

Courtney educates players and movie audiences in compassion, sacrifice, teamwork, growth and success. Football, he said, "teaches a lot of life lessons, and it offers us things we think about in our lives. We get injured on a personal level. We get injured in our businesses ... and we have to keep going."

The film marks a first-time collaboration for its makers, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, and in the Oscar race for best documentary, it's an underdog against the likes of "Pina" by Wim Wenders, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, "Hell and Back Again" by Danfung Dennis, and "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" from Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman.

But just being at the world's top film awards -- Hollywood's Super Bowl, in effect -- is a big victory for "Undefeated."

Asked about the possibility of a win on February 26, Combs is rather blunt: "I mean, it doesn't even matter. The success of the movie won't be defined by if it wins the Oscar."

Even in "Undefeated," which opened in theaters this weekend, winning isn't everything. Success is the key thing Courtney teaches, and success is not always defined by a score at the end of a game or how much money one has in his or her pocket.

At Manassas High in North Memphis, audiences "see what you think about every time you think about the worst of the worst," Courtney said. Yet, "every day those kids get up, they go to school and they find humor, and they try. They try, and that is endearing in itself."