by Sam Davis
A coach changes young lives through athletics in 1970s inner city Philadelphia. No, “Pride” is not another inspirational film with basketball, football, or baseball as its backdrop. In the ghetto, where hoops ruled the playground and a man would not be caught dead wearing a competitive “bikini” bathing suit, one man inspired a group of African-American teens to pursue their dreams though a sport rarely portrayed on the big screen…swimming.
Although the film tells a unique story with a different sport, it falls into an all too familiar sports movie formula that left this swimming fan, and film fan, searching for more.
Austin, Texas was one of 28 cities selected to show an early screening of “Pride” before it opens nationwide on March 23. Gold Medalist Josh Davis, who swam in two Olympics and was an all-American standout at The University of Texas, emceed the event on the UT campus February 27 as a representative of USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body and a sponsor of the sneak previews.
Based on true events, “Pride” is a Lionsgate film that tells the story of Coach Jim Ellis who has coached a swim team in inner city Philadelphia since the early 70s. A former swimmer himself, Ellis finds work at a rundown recreation center when he is unable to find a teaching job. Known as the Philadelphia Department of Recreation, or “PDR,” the center is slated to be shut down by city officials. In an effort to save the building and bring hope back to the community, Ellis cleans up the abandoned swimming pool and starts a competitive swim team of neighborhood youth.
Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow, Crash, Ray) stars as the passionate Ellis who gets some help along the way from the center’s curmudgeonly janitor named Elston played by Bernie Mac (Guess Who, Bad Santa, Oceans 12).
In his directorial debut, Sunu Gonera, falls short of giving the audience an emotional connection to his actors. While each of the characters begin to realize that this newly formed swim team brings them the hope and purpose they are so desperately looking for, the film lacks the emotional punch of other sports movies like “Remember the Titans” and “Miracle.” A pep talk given by Coach Ellis, “This is our community - give them something to believe in,” and encouragement from one swimmer to another like, “The anchor of the relay has to have the biggest heart,” seemed to fall flat and sounded far too familiar and clichéd.
Like “Glory Road,” racism and breaking down color barriers is an underlying theme in “Pride,” and the PDR swimmers are called upon to “find courage and strength” in themselves and with their teammates in the face of discrimination from rival coaches and swimmers. Overcoming racial obstacles in the swimming pool is a unique story that has not been told on film, but the requisite training montage and the slow motion competition sequences amidst the polyester pants and funk soundtrack of the 70s seemed far too much like “Invincible” meets “Glory Road” without the “stand-up and cheer” feeling that both of these movies left me walking away with.
Also, while many of the actors had the chiseled physique of well-conditioned athletes, swimming purists may balk at the flawed swimming form that some of them demonstrate in the pool.
Although some of his monologues seemed slightly melodramatic, Howard brings a subtle intensity to Coach Ellis, who struggles with demons of discrimination from his own past. Mac brings a comedic balance to Howard’s serious demeanor and the two actors share several amusing scenes on screen together.
The tagline on the “Pride” movie poster states, “Reach for it with everything you got.” While strong performances from Howard and Mac and the unique subject of competitive swimming helped the film come close to “reaching” the level of similar sports films, unoriginal pep talks and tired, formulaic “sports movie” elements cause “Pride” to fall short of its inspirational mark.