Get ready for an amazing film about the 1960’s, when race and basketball kissed, and a new era in American athletics began.
Most of this review is based on the interviews at the press junket for the film last Sunday here in Los Angeles. First seeing this really good film and then attending an awesome afternoon of interviews really made for a memorable few days. The cast, filmmakers, and writers are serious about their work, their art – and about the stories they choose to be part of the telling. I hope you’ll enjoy this review as much as I did writing it.
In 1965 a small-town Texas basketball coach for a girl’s high school team was hired to coach men’s Division 1 Basketball for a small west Texas college in El Paso, Texas Western College (renamed the University of Texas at El Paso in 1967). The school had so little funding that the coach, Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), and his family had to live in the men’s dorm.
Haskins, a former collegiate basketball player, needed to put a team together, but again without much of a budget. That year, Texas Western didn’t have an African American player. So that, taken with almost no money, led Haskins to recruit from the inner city courts where kids could really play ball but had little chance at getting a college education. He or his assistant, Moe (Evan Jones) visited Detroit, the South Bronx, and Gary, Indiana and managed to recruit seven African Americans. He had to win over the mothers most of all – and he did.
The dean was suspicious that its boosters would not continue their support of the college, yet in the end they did. Haskins worked the new team members that included Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), Harry Flournoy (Mehcad Brooks, Desperate Housewives), and Nevil Shed (Al Shearer), David Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr) and others. Among the Anglo players was Jerry Armstrong (Austin Nichols), who played defense and was responsible for many of the teams amazing wins that year 27-1.
The West Texas Miners made it to the NCAA Championships in 1966, playing against the University of Kentucky Wildcats, also at 27-1. At almost the last minute, Haskins decided to start with five African American players, and chose the other two as back up. He wanted to win. And they did.
Glory Road could have been your typical feel-good sports movie. You know the kind that are based on a true story and are a metaphor for life; the kind with a B.K. rating (bring Kleenex) that we love and have seen over and over, like Rudy and Hoosiers. And though Glory Road is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit on the court and off, it’s different. It’s a slice of American history during the Civil Rights era when basketball was king, but peaceful integration a far off dream.
Josh Lucas as Coach Haskins with Derek Luke as Bobby Joe Hill
At the press junket last weekend, prodigious producer Jerry Bruckheimer (see www.imdb.org for all his credits) told those of us from faith-based publications and online journals that there was even more to the story than made it into the film. Don Haskins played high school basketball with his best friend, an African American, when they were growing up in Oklahoma. Haskins was recruited to play college ball, but not his friend who was the better player; Haskins never forgot that he got a college education, but his friend did not. When asked why he chose to produce this film, Bruckheimer said that he likes stories about characters with depth, great themes and an involved plot. Then he added, “As filmmakers we are in the transportation business; we’re here to give you a great ride.” Bruckheimer also said that he believes that athletics and music have done more for civil rights in this country than any march ever did.
John Voight plays Adolf Rupp the legendary coach of the Wildcats of the University of Kentucky. (One of the journalists, from Ave Maria Radio in Detroit, asked the first question – about what Voight felt like playing Pope John Paul II. I wish I had had a video camera. Obviously Voight, who was raised Catholic, was very moved by filming in Krakow, Poland, and meeting and having tea with Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz who had been John Paul II’s secretary and assistant for almost forty years). I think the Ave Maria guy earned himself a promotion for the seven or so minutes he got from Voight about playing the Pope for the CBS special. Voight was inspiring to watch and listen to as he recalled the experience.) Voight does a tremendous amount of research about the roles he plays. He said that Rupp was always open to learning; he was born poor and came up the hard way and he did not believe in spoiling his players.
I know from a friend who lives in Lexington, KY and from one of the journalists also from Lexington, that people there are worried that Rupp will be portrayed as a racist. This is not so. Voight studied television footage of Rupp and read his speeches from where the brief dialogue he utters in the film is taken. The writers told us that they discovered nothing in their research that pointed to Rupp as a racist. But he didn’t have much respect for the upstart Haskins and his team and dissed him at the press conference before the championship game. In the film Rupp’s wife Esther (Catherine McGoohan) befriends Mary Haskins (Emily Deschanel; Bones) at a party where she was being badly snubbed – and this actually happened as well.
Mehcad Brooks who plays Harry Flournoy (and Alfre Woodard’s son on Desperate Housewives), and Al Shearer who plays Nevil Shed, were both at the junket, and they were a treat. Brooks comes from Texas and he said that the story of the West Texas Miners was a bedtime story for him growing up. He said that they all had to go to a two-week basketball training camp to get ready for the film and it was like a descent into hell. The real Don Haskins even came one day, Shearer told us, learned which characters they were playing, and then coached them for two hours – calling them by the names of their characters. Brooks said playing the part made him realize what it was like in the 1960’s when other ball players did not “reciprocate your existence.”
All the team actors actually played ball in the film; they were either actors who could play or players who could act.
So the question is: how much of the story is true? The writers, Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, both from the greater El Paso area who grew up hearing the story of Coach Haskins and the year the Miners and wanted to tell it. There are two scenes in the film where the team is viciously treated because of the black players. Did this really happen? “We had from 50-100 racial incidents to work from,” Bettina Gilois told us. “Each player had thingsdone to him, so we had to find a way to show the truth of what happened in a two-hour movie. We decided to condense all the incidents into these two. So no, these exact incidents didn’t happen, but others, some very serious, actually did. Plus there were the death threats and hate mail…”
First time feature director, James Gartner, and the writers, assured us that 80% of the film is factual, but it’s all true. The film has a deliberately gritty look to it, unlike the classic Hoosiers or even Bruckheimer’s earlier Remember the Titans. Gartner chose to make this film because of the powerful story, although Bruckheimer has offered him other films before. After seeing the film, Haskins called him and told him how pleased he was with how the film turned out, at how accurate it is.
The question remains: why did Haskins play all his African American team members that day? Was it a basketball decision or a political statement? Josh Lucas, who plays Haskins in the film, said it was probably both, plus Haskin’s remembered anger at how his best friend was not given a chance to play college ball, or get a college education. “Haskins was a complex character; he was charismatic but he also had rage. I think he’s more complex and difficult than Bobby Knight.” By not playing Armstrong Haskins showed what he was willing to risk – and believe in – to win.
Josh Lucas told us something no one else mentioned: within thee weeks of the Miners winning the NCAA Championship, 100% of all the colleges and universities in the country who had basketball programs began recruiting African American players. I was a teenager in 1965. Between the escalation of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, I don’t remember much else that made news – and certainly not about basketball and the Movement. I met Lucas on the elevator on the way down after the interviews ended and asked him again if this information was accurate, and he assured me that it was.
The story of the Miners’ victory that day so long ago has waited too long to be told.
This is a film about a time in American history that young people need to know about. Someone told us that after one of the screenings in El Paso a mother wrote to say thank you because her ten year old son could not believe that black people were treated that way and the film had given her a chance to sit down and talk to him about racism and its effects on people and society. To me, this is one of the gifts that cinema provides for us: a “space” to talk about things that matter.
The film plays humor, heart, grit, courage, perseverance, determination, and self-sacrifice against racism very well; I got a little teary a few times. But it is not manipulative like most feel-good movies are; in fact, this is not a pretty film – don’t forget that. It is a true story about real people with basketball as the backdrop, and it will inspire you.
Some of the funny incidents, like when the coach called David Lattin’s mom to come and get him to study, actually happened; also, the player (and it may have been Lattin, I cannot recall) started fainting; they discovered he had an enlarged heart. The coach didn’t want him to play, but his mother came and interceded for him. In actual fact, he also had two small strokes that same year but they decided to leave that detail out of the film. Too much story to tell and none of the usual clichés here.
Glory Road is on Bruckheimer’s super highway and it’s a great ride.