'Titans' scores a big touchdown for brotherhood

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Michael Janusonis / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

Remember the Titans is a message movie about how wonderful brotherhood and racial harmony can be, but don't be put off by that.

Based on a Virginia high school that was desegregated by court order in 1971, the film's message can be laid on pretty thick. Fortunately, however, it's done with a good deal of humor and natural acting. Because it boils the complex elements of school desegregation down to the effect it had on one school's football team, Remember the Titans doesn't always seem preachy.

The only time I thought -- Oh, brother! -- was when the black and white team members came running through the woods at their football camp and turned up at the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield, where there was a speech about this blood-soaked spot where 50,000 young men died long ago, leading to a poignant plea for brotherhood.

Fortunately, there are more surprises in store than one might expect. Director Boaz Yakin, previously known for the excellent Fresh , about a boy working for a heroin dealer, and the flop A Price Above Rubies, starring Renee Zellweger -- brings recent history alive with characters who go beyond stereotypes. Gregory Allen Howard's script keeps pulling us in unexpected directions.

Denzel Washington plays Herman Boone, the new head football coach at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., a campus that was created to bring two segregated schools -- one white, one black -- together. Brought in to appease the school board, Boone isn't sure he wants to be here, especially after he learns that his arrival upsets the white coach, Bill Yoast (Will Patton), who thought he was in line for the top job at the combined schools. Yoast reluctantly agrees to take the assistant coaching job, much to the dismay of his 9-year-old daughter Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere), whose passionate views on football make her part of the film's comic relief.

The grown-up men's distrust is mirrored and blown up by their players. Their football camp, designed to bring them together, is at first an explosive place where fights break out and where some boys refuse to work together.

It doesn't help that Boone is perceived as a hard-nosed, demanding father figure who pushes, pushes and pushes some more. "This is a dictatorship. I am the law," he bellows at them. But he immediately desegregates the team buses, tosses the blacks and whites together as roommates, orders each one to meet and write a report on a fellow teammate of a different race and offers quiet comfort to some who are in danger of getting poor grades.

Yoast, on the other hand, is the easier, good-cop side of the equation.

Field of dreams

The first half of Remember the Titans revolves around building a team. The young actors do a commendable job in creating characters who stand out from the crowd with very little to build on. Especially good is Ryan Hurst as Gerry Bertier, the star player who resents his black teammates until he realizes that the only way to have a championship season is for them all to pull together. In a wonderfully staged awkward moment, Gerry is dressed down by the coach for his racist views and finally must admit that, at least at the football camp, Coach Boone will be his surrogate father.

The second half of the movie revolves around the turmoil back at the high school that desegregation has caused. Although the team has more or less come together, there are still some players who resist. There's tension -- and pickets -- back at the school itself and this fuel's much of the rest of the action, punctuated by several football games.

Yakin stages those games largely in closeup, which is fine since in the grander scale of the film's plot, football is only a metaphor for the story of racial bonding. The important thing is not so much individual games or plays, but the broader sense of where those plays and games lead the team. Yet Yakin's in-your-face approach manages to give a sense of being in the game and the sometimes chaotic sense of being on the field in the middle of a play.

Walking on eggshells

Washington is a little too reticent and stubborn as Coach Boone, although he's walking on eggshells, especially after learning that one loss could mean the end of his career at T.C. Williams High. Fortunately, Washington eventually gets to demonstrate Boone's compassion and the strong feelings of family and loyalty that make him human.

Patton, looking like a younger, more attractive version of George W. Bush, brings sensitivity and compromise to his role of the passed-over coach who still dreams of a Hall of Fame shot. Pint-sized Hayden Panettiere makes a wonderful, tough little foil as his never-say-die, rabble-rousing daughter.

Besides Hurst, other standouts on the football team include Wood Harris as Julius, a black player who learns to overcome his resentment against his white teammates, Kip Pardue as a surfer dude type who moves to town from California and shakes up things, and Ethan Suplee as a chubby player with low self-esteem who finds confidence in his abilities through Coach Boone's advice.

There's lots of fun here. The Titans perform some outlandish choreography when they arrive on field for a game. There are historic lessons about the face of Southern segregation when the integrated teammates try to get service at a segregated restaurant. And there are moments that tug at the heart, treading close to mawkishness as Yakin pulls out the stops.

But then this is an inspirational film about brotherhood. You don't even have to like football to be moved.

Remember the Titans

Starring : Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Wood Harris, Ryan Hurst, Donald Faison, Craig Kirkwood, Ethan Suplee, Kip Pardue, Hayden Panettiere.

Producers: A Touchstone picture written by Gregory Allen Howard, directed by Boaz Yakin.

Rated : PG, contains violence, ethnic slurs.

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.