After having seen a thousand feel-good sports dramas -- Rudy, Remember the Titans, We Are Marshall, Glory Road and so on ad infinitum (and in many cases ad nauseam) -- you'd think that I'd be inclined to sneer at Pride. Or dismiss it as hokey, old-timey, sentimental, manipulative. Well, I actually want to celebrate Pride for being hokey, old-timey, sentimental and manipulative in the best possible way -- and also for being well-made, smarter than it has to be, packed with pleasures and full of rousing depictions of both the pleasures of competition and the hard work it takes to achieve excellence. Plus it's got an amazing Philly soul soundtrack, a steadfast-but-never-dull lead performance by Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac in what I'll call, for lack of a better phrase, the Ernest Borgnine role. Yeah, Pride is a standard-issue production-line sports drama. But Jaguars come off production lines too.
Howard plays Jim Ellis, and in a pre-credit sequence we see Ellis's swimming career as a youth -- and how a meet in 1964 North Carolina spoiled swimming for him. As the credits begin -- lettering that looks like it was pulled off the side of a Chevy van over scenes of '70s Philadelphia while the soundtrack roars with the O'Jay's "Back Stabbers" -- it's years later, and Ellis just wants a job. Any job. He tries to get a gig coaching at the local academy, but the headmaster's indifferent, and as Howard stands in a polyester suit in front of retro-atheletic banners, Pride looks like a scene from The White Shadow. And the white shadow is in the room -- Ellis's job application is pretty much rejected outright by the snotty headmaster -- Tom Arnold, who puts a few spins on a rote role throughout the film. Ellis gets a job down at the unemployment office, preparing an inner-city recreation center for demolition.
The rec center is run-down, ruined, abandoned; kids play street ball in the debris-scattered lot out front, and the only staff person on duty is Elston (Bernie Mac), gruff with Ellis when interrupted: "You came in here and interrupted my stories, and that ain't cool." What's also not cool is that this is the first Elston has been told the center is shutting down.
Ellis will, of course, turn the rag-tag group of kids playing ball out front into a swim team -- that's a given. What isn't a given is how many great moments of action and direction are sprinkled throughout Pride -- like when Ellis, touring the center, pauses, and you can see him smelling chlorinated water from dozens of yards away. It could have been a ridiculous moment, but Howard pulls it off, and it works. Or when young Willie (Regine Nehey) wants to join the swim team -- she's a natural -- and the film bursts into a montage of swimming and fun that ends with Willie coming up out of the water with a mile-wide smile on her face, like something from an Esther Williams sequence, and her delight at being in the water is immense, immediate and accessible.
That's another thing Pride gets right, too -- the fact that the laws of bio-mechanics and physics don't really care what color your skin is. Ellis's kids go from ineptitude to competence to excellence, and we get a sense of the work that involves. And yes, the team fights to keep the rec center open, and winds up having a big match with the very same academy that rejected Ellis earlier -- and we do not mind those clichés, because they're depicted with charm and intelligence thanks to director Sunu Gonera and screenwriters and the swarming team of screenwriters who adapted the real Ellis's true story.
There are overdone moments in Pride, sure -- you could fill the rec center's pool with all the tears spilled on-screen, and there's not only a big meet but also an "I'm Spartacus!"/"O, Captain, my Captain!" moment as well. But nobody in Pride acts like they're in a cliché; they act like they're in a movie, and that helps. Admittedly, the kids in the swim team are pretty indistinguishable -- there's the leader, the comedian, the dork, moose and mumbles, plus the girl -- but the actors playing the kids carry off small moments well, and with grace.
The film's really a vehicle for Howard, though, and he's great -- proud, principled, acutely aware of his failings and flaws. Just as he did in Hustle and Flow, Howard makes moral confusion look hot, and while I know that hard-won moral authority isn't solely possessed by the handsome, it sure as heck makes it easier to watch when it is. Howard's under-used capacity for easy comedy helps, too -- when one of the kids bets him $20 he can outswim the much older man, Howard's reply is perfectly pitched: "My $50 to your $20 says "Negro, please." Bernie Mac acts -- and over-acts -- relatively well. His part may be firmly rooted in B-movie traditions and stereotypes, but it never droops into racial stereotypes or minstrel show; and hey, a movie like this needs come comedy relief; who better to provide it than a comedian? Kimberly Elise fills two roles -- The Girl and The Bureaucrat who Wants to Shut the Rec Center Down -- but a movie like this has to have a Girl, and a Bureaucrat, much in the way that automobiles have to have safety belts and breakaway glass.
Pride is heartwarming, and as I've said before, I have no objection to a movie that tries to warm my heart; the problem is that most movies nowadays that try and warm your heart might as well be doing it with a microwave -- blasting you with high-frequency clichés and giving you the kind of fuzzy warm glow that dissipates in a matter of milliseconds the moment it's over. Pride takes its time, makes its point, shows the struggle and the work required for physical victories and moral ones. But the best possible compliment I could play Pride has nothing to do with what I saw on screen; it's what I saw in the audience. During the big meet finale, I looked to my left, distracted by motion, and saw a little girl, sitting with her mom, spinning her arms in time with the swimmers on-screen, caught up in the action. That's a sure-fire sign a movie works, and that's exactly what Pride does.