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'Remember the Titans'

Titans of tolerance: 'Remember the Titans' tells a story of a football team that saved the town

Friday, September 29, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

In the world of Kansas high-school quarterbacks and halfbacks, I was an All-American throwback -- star of the Latin rather than the football team, with all the negative peer status that came with it. Scarred for life. Sic transit gloria nerdi. But '60s Kansas was, if nothing else, racially civilized -- Midwest, not South: We fought with the Union in the Civil War and gave the civil-rights movement its first huge Brown v. Topeka desegregation victory in '54. Sunflower State integration took place without violence. Wichita would soon have a black mayor. The black kids at my school were welcome and popular -- and this was '63, not '69.


RATING: PG for mild profanity

STARRING: Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Ryan Hurst, Wood Harris

DIRECTOR: Boaz Yakin

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars


A thousand miles east and north -- just a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh -- was the far more Southern, more racist state of Virginia, the home of screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard. But when he went back there in the '80s, it struck him that the city of Alexandria was exceptionally well integrated by Southern, Northern or any other standards.

Why? he wondered. Howard asked around and kept hearing about a legendary high-school football team with two heroic coaches back in 1971. People said they saved the town.

First of all, they had to save the team.

"Remember the Titans" is their inspirational story -- a true and damn good one -- from Disney Productions. When the local school board is forced to integrate an all-white with an all-black school, the volatile situation at T.C. Williams High is made worse by the replacement of popular head coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) with black coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington). Soft-spoken Yoast swallows his pride and takes a humiliating demotion to defensive coordinator. In-your-face Boone has twice as much pride and never swallows it. Like a latter-day Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones," they are chained to one another with the task of teaching their teen Titans how to work together -- simultaneously trying to learn how to do so themselves.

What's interesting is that the screen (and real-life) "Titans" are no Bad News Underdog Bears but a past and potentially current state championship team -- if they can overcome enormous racial hostilities and get their act together. Boone forces them to do so with a pre-season training brutality that makes Marine boot camp look like a Girl Scout outing, while Yoast gently intercedes and pleads for mercy. What's thus even more interesting is that Washington's bullying character is unlikable -- and Patton's Southern gentleman sympathetic -- from beginning to end.

Wholly likable are the guys themselves, given their real-life names and personalities: team captain Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst), a true leader and reformed racist thanks to bonding with enemy-turned-pal Julius Campbell (Wood Harris); ever-smilin' Petey Jones (Donald Falson), whose jock jocularity is matched by the antics of huge Ethan Suplee -- a Chris Farley look-alike and weigh-alike (may he live longer); and the fey if not gay surfer-boy quarterback Ronnie "Sunshine" Bass (Kip Pardue), typical of the Army brats -- and let's hear it for 'em -- who were colorblind compared with their Stateside peers and paved the way for tolerance when they came home.

This testosterone team ensemble works wonderfully well, on and off the film field. We shall do them the favor of not mentioning -- well, not stressing -- that none of them look convincingly high-school age. Little Hayden Panettiere, on the other hand, as Patton's wildly partisan, football-wise daughter looks exactly her age (9) and is a delightful pest throughout.

Director Boaz Yakin (whose "A Price Above Rubies" with Renee Zellweger was one of the finest unsung films of 1998) never bothers too much about the score -- game or musical -- but artfully supplies both in bits and pieces: No grand overviews of the action, just close-up bumps, grinds and groans of key plays to snatches of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

Yakin's one big failure is a potentially moving scene set in the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery near the Titans' training camp: It ain't Gettysburg and it ain't foolin' nobody. And he tugs at the heartstrings one too many times with an untimely car accident involving team captain Bertier toward the end.

Did I say Kansas was racially enlightened compared with Virginia? Yes, well ... Knowing your boundless fascination with my personal drama, dear readers, I must drop my other size 12 shoe: In a 1970 panic to escape the draft, I wrangled a job teaching English at the all-black Holy Savior Catholic School in Wichita's ghetto. It was lamentably run-down but proud, and everyone was excited about the new all-voluntary busing plan: A dozen pro-civil rights families from rich white Mary Magdalen parish across town were sending their kids to Holy Savior. That was the hard part -- whites to black school. The reciprocal part was easy. Or so we thought until, at the last minute, all-white Magdalen refused to admit the dozen black exchange students -- backed up by the bishop!

All of a sudden Virginia's lookin' pretty good, and so is "Remember the Titans." Coach Boone's theory was that, to overcome prejudice, you don't have to love each other but must respect each other. Simple enough. The positive results in Alexandria are visible 30 years later, while still wanting in much of the country. The refreshing film-visible result is to see football used and portrayed as a metaphor for something other than war -- for harnessing young aggressions to gridiron out intolerance.

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