Pride (United States, 2007)
Pride is one of those generic inspirational sports movies that has been cobbled together from spare parts left to rust on Hollywood's shelf of clichés and stereotypes. Take a little '70s racism, add the guidance of a strong coach, throw in minor subplots about the players, and stir. Yet , despite the stale odor of the broth, lack of originality isn't Pride's stumbling point - it's that the familiar story is not well presented. The manipulation is clumsy and obvious and none of the characters attains a semblance of three-dimensionality. Even a solid performance by Terrence Howard can't keep Coach Jim Ellis from seeming like a shadow of the many more interesting men in whose footsteps he treads.
Pride is "inspired by a true story" - a phrase that allows a lot of liberty to be taken with the facts. Yes, there is a man named Jim Ellis and he did start coaching the PDR (Philadelphia Department of Recreation) swim team in 1974, but most of the rest of what's in the screenplay comes from the infertile imaginations of the four writers. In Pride's version of Ellis' story, he arrives at a rundown Philadelphia rec center with the job description of getting it ready to close. This earns him the enmity of the maintenance man, Elston (Bernie Mac), who believes the center hasn't outlived its usefulness. Ellis, formerly a top-of-the-line college swimmer, becomes sidetracked by a disused pool, which he cleans and fills with water. Soon, the half-dozen or so kids who used to play on the center's basketball court are taking swimming lessons from Ellis and dreaming of forming their own swim team. This is accomplished with the help of a local councilwoman (Kimberly Elise), whose little brother is one of Ellis' pupils. Soon, the PDR team is entered in citywide swim meets as a huge underdog.
When it comes to the sports movie genre, why not add swimming to the list? We've had just about everything else. The fact that Pride doesn't really work in terms of getting audiences aroused and cheering is more a function of the filmmaking than the subject matter. The movie is so bad at character development that we never get a sense of who the boys (plus a token girl) are. We root for them because the movie tells us we're supposed to root for them. They're a lonely cadre of black swimmers in a room full of white guys. We know the whites are bad because they sneer and snicker and are led by Tom Arnold. (No one led by Tom Arnold could possibly be considered sympathetic.) Victimization and eventually nobility make the PDR swimmers heroic. It's difficult to make concepts of good and evil more simplistic.
Since the movie transpires mostly in 1974, when swimming was dominated by white athletes, Pride gets to play in the racism pool, but it ends up foundering. Unlike more effective efforts like Remember the Titans and Glory Road (both of which made legitimate statements about racism - even if it could be argued they soft-peddled the issue), Pride never offers much beyond the obvious mantra of bigotry being bad. There are too many powerful indictments of the subject out there for this to be sufficient. In the end, the protagonists triumph over racism, poverty, and urban decay, but it's a hollow victory. If these characters had been developed as more than thinly clothed types, the uplifting conclusion might have meant something, but Pride wants its victory lap without earning it. Stealing scenes from other movies does not allow this one to claim it's making a statement.
For the most part, Terrence Howard does a good enough job to make Pride watchable. He's a charismatic actor and, while this isn't close his career-best work, he almost sells Ellis, and certainly puts some fire in his belly. Bernie Mac is successful in the sidekick part, filtering wry humor through a serious performance. It shows he's capable of more than buffoonery. Kimberly Elise provides little as Ellis' semi-love interest, although that's more the fault of the script than the portrayal. I can't say much about the actors playing the swimmers because none of them stands out. There's a short boy, a girl, a goofy guy with glasses, and a few others whose distinguishing characteristics are their pecs. Gary Anthony Sturgis gets into the action as the Big, Bad Wolf, but he never gets beyond the huffing and puffing stage as his house gets blown down.
This is the feature debut for director Sunu Gonera but, despite his obvious good intentions, it's not a positive way to start a career. Not only does he mess up the big things, but he fails to get some of the little ones right, as well. The movie's opening credits roll against establishing shots of the Philadelphia skyline - circa 2006. Most of the tall buildings dominating the cityscape didn't exist until the late 1980s so anyone familiar with the city will recognize immediately that the filmmakers aren't concerned about verisimilitude. This sloppiness extends to the entire picture. It would have been nice if the movie had shown us something interesting about competitive swimming, had provided an intelligent and provocative view of the impact of racism in sports during the '70s, or had at least given us characters worth caring about. All we get, however, are recycled plot points, rehashed and simplistic looks at race relations, and protagonists who are too often defined not by personal characteristics but by their skin color. Pride has little to be proud about.
Pride (United States, 2007)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Kevin Michael Smith & Michael Gozzard and J. Mills Goodloe and Norman Vance Jr
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Music: Aaron Zigman
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