The best stories in life are true. And “Glory Road,” a minimally enhanced depiction of one of the greatest sports stories of all time, is certainly among the best portrayals to hit the screen in months. Released in a time when the specter of discrimination – racial or otherwise – still looms, the film is a stark portrayal of one team’s improbable triumph and a poignant reminder of the way illogical, bigoted norms appear once-removed from a blurring context.
Essentially, “Glory Road” follows Don Haskins (Josh Lucas, “Stealth”), a basketball coach who, when given the chance to move up from high school to Division I, moves with his family to El Paso to coach the little-known Texas Western University Miners.
Like most pioneers, Coach Haskins doesn’t think he is one – he just wants to win games. Working on a low budget, he finds himself losing out on all the big recruits. But on one scouting trip, he comes across a smooth-handling guard named Bobby Joe Hill from Detroit and offers him a scholarship. The year is 1965, Bobby Joe Hill is black and such a thing just can’t happen.
Fighting back pressure from fellow coaches, fans and even university officials, Coach Haskins recruits several more black players – not just to sit them on the bench as “token negroes,” but to actually play with them and win. With Haskins’s guidance, his ’66 team comes together against impossible odds to have a 27-1 season, capped off by the most important game in basketball – the NCAA championship – against the powerhouse Kentucky Wildcats.
“Glory Road” is much more than the stock underdog story Disney releases approximately 11 times a year. It handles its social relevance adeptly, and doesn’t get caught in the slapstick that weighs down many such films. Though not perfect, the pace is solid, especially in the early scenes. In an effort to give the audience a quick overview of Coach Haskins’s life, too much is squeezed into the first 10 minutes, making the narrative feel rushed. But just as the audience settles in, so does the film, and it goes on to tell its exceptional story in a compelling, yet suitably somber manner.
Lucas, trashed for his performance in last summer’s megaflop “Stealth,” is great as the relentless and naA_vely righteous Coach Haskins. He has mastered the coach’s mannerisms and delivers the most natural performance of his career. His players are also remarkably convincing in their looks and styles. Unexpectedly, Disney has created an environment that authentically captures the civil rights era, and successfully evokes the issues its characters live with on a daily basis.
There are people who will see “Glory Road” and walk out disappointed because, to them, it’s just a rehash of the same old underdog story. But the film is so much more than that. It brazenly stirs up the most controversial issues in America, asking us to ponder our most basic assumptions about the social order. It was once unheard of for a black man to play college basketball. Today, we still have country clubs that prohibit women and laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. “Glory Road” is astonishing because it challenges us to remember that the pursuit of a better society is not merely an antiquated fight embalmed in celluloid triumph tales, but an ongoing battle.
Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
At the Showcase and Quality 16