It never pays to know too many facts behind a “based on a true story” movie. Inevitably, you either spend your time check marking everything the film gets right or grousing over the things it gets wrong.
Despite having lived in El Paso for the past seven months, I didn’t know much about the 1966 Texas Western (now University of Texas-El Paso) Miners’ road to the NCAA Championships before going to see Glory Road, the film based on their experiences. If I had, I might have enjoyed it a lot less than I did.
As a release from Disney, the studio that brought audiences uplifting sports titles like Remember the Titans, Miracle, and, most recently The Greatest Game Ever Played, you might be thinking you already have a good idea how Glory Road unfolds. And you wouldn’t be wrong.
Once again a rag-tag group of athletic underdogs must overcome the odds to prove to the world that they’ve got what it takes to compete with the best. Once again they face unfair labels and mounting disadvantages. And once again they must make a sacrifice of blood, sweat, and dedication before learning something deeper about themselves through both victory and defeat.
But there’s a reason this perennial Disney formula continues to make money--because, let’s face it, it makes people feel good. And in today’s climate of bait-and-switch movie marketing, sometimes it’s nice to know you’re not going to accidentally pay to see a film that mocks every value you honor.
So while Glory Road doesn’t depart much from Disney’s broad outline, it is, like all the others, also not exactly the same. Its heart lies in the details.
The year is 1965 and girls’ high school basketball coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) finally gets his chance to coach Division I basketball when a small South-Texas university comes calling. As his employers inform him, Texas is football country, so his program won’t have much money for recruiting. To get around his funding problem, Haskins starts offering scholarships to talented athletes that otherwise wouldn’t have much shot at college, that is, black playground ballers.
Once the new student-athletes arrive at Texas Western U in El Paso, culture shock is felt all around—the black athletes as they come to terms with living in a mostly Hispanic border town under strict scholarship rules and Haskins as he struggles to integrate a new urban style of play into his strategy of basketball “fundamentals.”
But these problems pale in comparison to those they confront once they start winning. Certain states in the South don’t much appreciate being beaten by what they consider a “black team” and their fans resort to much more than name-calling to show it.
Eventually, Haskins decides he’s had enough of the bigotry and starts a history-making lineup that will forever change the face of college basketball.
Though director James Gartner goes to the “heartstrings” well a few too many times with a few too many young men, his players still manage to amuse and move us. Watching as one athlete’s mother arrives to make sure he makes the most of education and as another player tries to order food he’s never heard of in the campus cafeteria will have the whole family rolling. Walt Disney Pictures
Lucas gives a strong, inspiring turn as Haskins: a bear of a man whose temper is as big as his laugh (frankly, I can’t imagine how the film would have turned out had Ben Affleck, the actor originally cast as Haskins, not started demanding more money and been dropped from the project). And the always-impressive Jon Voigt rips into his part of legendary Kentucky head coach Adolf Rupp with an arrogance that intimidates the audience as much as the Miners.
Even the actors playing the athletes, several of whom are virtual novices, provide nuance and unique spirit to their somewhat thinly drawn parts.
So what about those pesky “facts” I alluded to in the first paragraph? Unfortunately, once I discovered them, I discovered a much more complex and inspiring story than that relayed in Glory Road.
There the racism the team experiences is more subtle and more personal. There, solutions to social problems are found in success, not statements. And there the men who overcome them don’t need a white coach’s charity, only his unbiased assessment of their skills. In short, there resides the kind of movie that could never be called formulaic.
All said, Glory Road is a well-told, if predictable, film. Its only sin is that it could have been a much better one.