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Period Sports Drama Soars

The latest in a seemingly inexhaustible series of period sports dramas based on true events (We Are Marshall, Invincible, Gridiron Gang), Sunu Gonera ‘s directorial debut, Pride focuses on a B- or even C-level sport: competitive swimming. Long the province of white athletes, African Americans have steadily made inroads into the sport, thanks, in part, to the pioneering efforts of Jim Ellis, a former competitive swimmer turned inner-city instructor and mentor who introduced competitive swimming to at-risk teenagers in Philadelphia in the early 70s.

Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard), an ex-competitive swimmer and college graduate, arrives in Philadelphia hoping to obtain a job as a teacher and swimming coach at an upper-class secondary school, Mainline Academy. Coach Binkoski (Tom Arnold) rejects Ellis as “unfit” for Mainline Academy. Frustrated and running out of money, Ellis accepts a temporary job for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation, closing down the Marcus Foster Recreational Center, a “recreational center” in name only. At the center, Ellis meets Elston (Bernie Mac), the self-described “head of maintenance.” Local teenagers use the basketball court up front for pick-up games, but they refuse to venture inside the rundown facilities.

Wandering around the center, Ellis discovers an unused, dilapidated swimming pool. With nothing else to do or anywhere else to go, Walt (Alphonso McAuley), Hakim (Nate Parker), Andre (Kevin Phillips), Puddin Head (Brandon Fobbs), and Reggie (Evan Ross), retreat indoors to the pool. Before long, Ellis convinces the former basketball players to give competitive swimming a try. A neighborhood girl, Willie (Regine Nehy), also asks to participate. Ellis soon realizes that his team has a lot to learn if they’re going to become competitive, let alone win any meets. Outside the center, Ellis has to contend with Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise), a local councilwoman who wants to close the center and Franklin (Gary Anthony Sturgis), a local drug dealer.

Pride is only the most recent addition to the popular mentor/coach-teaches-life-lessons-to-inner-city-youth sub-genre. In just the last two years, Gridiron Gang, Glory Road, and Coach Carter have relied heavily on a formula that’s proven popular with mainstream audiences. What better way to shake out a few emotions than a sports drama that ends with the central characters proving their worth and value to themselves and winning (or coming close to winning) the last competition?

Pride includes the mandatory, life-affirming lessons about teamwork, self-sacrifice, discipline, and determination. Like other sports dramas, the movie seemingly reaffirms the shared values that cross race, class, and even gender lines, while subtly suggesting that racial and related social problems were resolved long ago and we therefore live in much improved, more enlightened times.

Formula and themes aside, Pride succeeds for several reasons, beginning with Terence Howard (Crash, Hustle & Flow), who executive produced the film, and his exhilarating performance. Howard makes quiet, intense introspection look easy (it's not). Bernie Mac does what he’s done before on film and on television, acting as welcome comic relief to the serious, introspective Ellis. Where Pride shines, though, is in the supporting cast, specifically the basketball players turned competitive swimmers. It’s less about their individual acting ability than their easy rapport and comical banter.

In his English-language debut as director, Sunu Gonera keeps Pride humming along at a nice clip through the final meet against Mainline Academy. Gonera is particularly good in handling the swimming scenes, where the camera begins underwater, only to rise up in one seemingly continuous shot above the action. Pride also works due to a screenplay by Kevin Mitchell Smith, Michael Gozzard (who also receive story credit), J. Mills Goodloe, and Norman Vance, Jr.

With so many screenwriters, Pride could have been another mish-mash of clichés and tired genre conventions. While the movie embraces, even celebrates genre clichés, the crackling dialogue and character development elevate Pride above those same clichés. Whatever the reason, Howard, the supporting cast, the dialogue, the direction, or all of them, Pride ends up as an engrossing period sports drama.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars