Color-blind? Not in Hollywood's telling

Posted: Jan 11, 2006 12:01 AM

“Based on a true story.”

Once upon a time, audiences might have taken these words to mean that every word and action they were about to witness would be portrayed exactly as they happened in real life. Today, on the other hand, most moviegoers are savvy enough to know that Hollywood takes liberties with even the best-documented real-life events.

In some instances, these liberties are taken in the interest of time, to condense a lot of history into a two-hour time frame. In others, small alterations are made to increase the film’s entertainment value, like adding jokes where no joke was ever uttered.

As busy modern moviegoers, we can usually understand and even appreciate these kinds of changes.

But what are not so easy to dismiss are the changes made in service to a social agenda that isn’t serviced by reality, as is the case with Glory Road, Disney’s new film about an unlikely coach and an undervalued college basketball team that makes it to the national championships.

Here’s the true (abridged) story of the 1966 Texas Western (now University of Texas-El Paso) Miners:

A color-blind college basketball coach named Don Haskins has a burning desire to win a championship, so he goes out and recruits the best players his program can afford. Many of these players happen to be black. The same desire to win leads Coach Haskins to start his five best players once they reach the finals. These five players once again happen to be black.

By honoring excellence, Haskins and his players make history. That 1966 season witnesses the first all-black starting lineup in an NCAA championship game.

Of course, behind this brief retelling are larger-than-life characters, colorful exchanges, romance, tension, wins, losses, and all that’s needed for a rollicking good time at the movies.

Pretty good story, don’t you think? Yet for some reason, that’s not the way Hollywood has chosen to tell it.

In their hands, color-blinded becomes decidedly color-minded as Don Haskins starts making coaching decisions in the interest of scoring moral points rather than game points.

Despite the fact that Don Haskins and the original black players have always maintained that the choices he made during that season were made in the interest of winning basketball games, in the film, it is civic justice that weighs most heavily on the coach’s mind. On the eve of the big game, he even tells what are presented as equally talented white players that they will have to sit out to serve a greater good.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer insisted at a recent press junket that this version of events is more accurate than the one the coach and his players recall: “If you ask Don Haskins, that was a basketball decision. If you look into his past, it’s a combination of the two. When he was in high school he played with an African American athlete and they were very close, good friends. He was a much better player than Don [Haskins]. Don got a scholarship to play for Oklahoma State, the other guy got nothing.”

Bruckheimer’s back story is enlightening and may very well be true, but how does it excuse not taking the man and his team at their word? It’s just as likely that Haskins remembered his high school friend, the superior basketball player, when he took his coaching job and wondered if he couldn’t recruit guys like him to win some games.

Bruckheimer gave similar responses when asked why the racial aggression the Miners experienced on the road—which was mostly limited to name-calling and threatening letters in real life—is conflated on film to brutal beatings and property defacement.

“[The Texas Miners] constantly faced a barrage of racial epithets and we couldn’t show everything they went through so we had to build it. And the best way to do that was have two moments that represented a lot of what happened.”

As mentioned earlier, most audiences will accept the time-crunch reasoning, but it still doesn’t explain why Bruckheimer and his crew didn’t simply depict a few genuine instances of bigotry the team endured rather than inventing two out of whole cloth.

It also doesn’t explain why he and director James Gartner chose to insert racial tension where none existed-—between the team members themselves.

In the film, the shouting match between the black and white Miners in the locker room after their only loss creates a tense, dramatic moment, pitting team member against team member by the color of their skin. It would be a fascinating study in 1960s race relations if it had ever happened. In reality, the only person shouting after the Seattle defeat was Haskins, upset by what he saw as his team’s tendency to coast.

As a point of fact, Haskins recently asserted as he always has, that his players rarely mentioned race.

In nearly every instance, the alterations made to the true story of El Paso’s “Glory Road” are made to increase the film’s social agenda rather than its story-telling one.

Yes, it is true the team endured racist verbal and written attacks that each man chose to rise above. And it is true that the group of five black starters forever laid to rest the idea that African-American athletes needed a white player on the floor to act as leader.

But most of all, it is true that the victory they achieved was accomplished not through some strategy to increase civil rights but through their intense drive to win, to show the world that they were the best.

It was Don Haskins’ desire to win—as he has consistently maintained over the last 40 years—that led him to recruit and start the best players he could find, black or white. And it was the desire of other college coaches to win that led them to follow his example and begin color-blind recruiting as well.

By suggesting that Don Haskins chose his NCAA championship starters out of a sense of social conscience rather than his determination to triumph, Disney takes something important away from the accomplishment of those black athletes and lays it instead at the feet of their white coach.

It also takes something important away from their story: the truth.