Thursday, April 1, 2010

Glory Road: A Review (Review #65)


Miner League...

I start my review of Glory Road (which my mother, in her lovely malapropism, refers to as Road to the Glory) with a few confessions. Confession One: I am a graduate of the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP). Confession Two: I have, in the past, taken greater pride in being a graduate of El Paso High School than I do of being a graduate of UTEP.

I have to state all this up front before I begin my review for Glory Road since the film is about UTEP, or Texas Western College as it was known in 1966 when the film takes place. This is the story of the NCAA Basketball Championship, when tiny TWC defeated the heavily-favored University of Kentucky. That in itself would have made for a remarkable story, but what adds a greater significance to the story is that TWC started the game with an all-black line up, breaking the color barrier and being the first step toward full integration in college basketball.  Glory Road has a good film rattling around it, but gets lost somewhere to where this necessary story doesn't make it as good as it should be.

Coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) is starting his career at TWC after coming from coaching high school girls. At TWC, he is unhappy that he is little position to recruit players, so he starts finding those who fall by the wayside. As it turns out, his eye for talent leads him to black players who under regular circumstances would not be bothered with. Chief among those he finds is Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), who is fearful that he will be recruited but will never actually play. Haskins is relentless in his pursuit of finding the best players he can find and is thoroughly uninterested in what color they are. His single-mindedness truly makes him color-blind. Haskins' decision doesn't sit well with just about everyone: not the Boosters or the actual team. The players, both black and white, aren't overtly hostile but must overcome their own suspicions of each other. After a rigorous training the TWC Miners start winning, going on to their climatic match up with Kentucky and a place in history.

My troubled history with UTEP caused me to not watch Glory Road for the longest time.  I have the upmost respect for the 1966 Miners, and after seeing the film, I find that their story needs to be told...again.

At the heart of what is wrong with Glory Road is that for all the inspiration the story naturally lends itself to, there is no focus. It could have focused on how the TWC Miners made history by proving that African-Americans if given the opportunity were truly the equals to their Anglo counterparts. It could have been about the triumph of a small school which was written off by nearly everyone over a large school with a massive basketball program.  It could have been about a lot.  Was it though?

Let's go the climatic Final Game. You get shots of African-Americans watching the game excitedly. Is it because Haskins started five black players? Is it because it's a basketball game? Is it because it's a small school versus a big school? Since race, oddly, WASN'T a big feature in Glory Road, it almost felt horned in. We didn't know where to focus our attention on.

Instead, Glory Road spent a lot of time (time wasted I thought) chronicling the player's hijinks instead of the discipline it would have taken them to win. We were shown trips to the border town of Juarez, we were given parties where the white players were introduced to how beautiful black can be, we were given how the black players could not find any food in the school cafeteria other than flautas or tacos. What we weren't given was a real idea of who the 1966 Miners were as individuals.

There were occasions when Glory Road came close: the subplot of how Hill romances young waitress Tina Malichi (Tatyana Ali) or how Harry Flournoy's (Mehcad Brooks) mother comes down to El Paso and literally sits behind him in his class in order to get him to learn. Those were the good moments, the ones that stood out. It's when Glory Road decides to venture away from them as individuals and goes into how funny the clash of cultures between black, white, and Hispanic is that the film lost momentum. I really didn't know much about what motivated Hill or Flournoy or for that matter Togo Railey (Kip Weeks) or Dick Meyers (Mitch Eakins). Even the lone Hispanic on the team, David Palacio (Alejandro Hernandez) had almost literally nothing to say--if memory serves correct he had one line in the entire film.

Here's a textbook example of how Glory Road failed to take advantage of what it could have been. The Miners had endured a wretched treatment at East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Commerce) by the ETSU fans (culminating in the black players' room being vandalized with ugly epitaphs smeared in blood). The team as a whole cannot play against Seattle the following week. In the locker room the black and white players have some sort of fight about the pressures of playing on an integrated team. In the very next scene, where they play in their first playoff game against Kansas, they are suddenly all huddled together in prayer. I wanted to know how they resolved their fears and their locker room argument, but I never got that. I just saw that everything between them was now OK.

That to me struck me as cheating. The film skips over these issues because it was more important to director James Gartner and screenwriter Chris Cleveland to show how much fun the black players had explaining to their white counterpart the true meaning of the word "bad" than to tackle how other people's bigotry affected a team where color should have been irrelevant. It was a wasted opportunity.

Worse still was Trevor Rabin's score. It always cued us to how we were suppose to feel, but instead of cueing the right emotional reactions we instead were bombarded with such intrusive music. The soundtrack did capture the feel of the sixties (you can never go wrong with Mahalia Jackson) but at times even that was too much.

The performances were on the whole decent but not overwhelming. Luke's Hill was the player that dominated the film, and he did a good job in spite of the script to show Hill as a man yearning to make his place in the world, a charmer and talent who knows what he can do. Emily Deschanel had very little to do as Mary Haskins, and she is mostly a shadow throughout the film. This is more the fault of the script which gave her next to nothing to do than with Deschanel as an actress. In a small role, Ali did much better with her role as Hill's love interest.

What truly raises the film itself from utter collapse is Josh Lucas' performance as Don Haskins. Having been to a few basketball games long before his retirement I have seen Haskins (who Miners know as The Bear) in action, and while Lucas bears no resemblance to Haskins he brilliantly captured Haskins' fierce nature. Lucas is brilliant in his role: not once does he ever hit a wrong note, even when having to speak silly lines (such as when he inspires the team as they are about to topple mighty Kentucky, "This isn't about winning. It's about heart"). Lucas never loses focus on his interpretation of Haskins as a determined fighter who is relentless in his determination to push his players to their upmost potential and as someone who sees only skill not color. It is the best performance of the film bar none.

Here is a third confession: I doubt I will ever be a Miner Maniac (in spite of my B.A. from UTEP). Whatever my issues with UTEP may be, I will be the first to acknowledge that the 1966 Miners and Coach Haskins deserve all the accolades they have received, down to their rightful induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Their achievement on and off the court deserves a standing ovation which I gladly give.

Glory Road should have been better because the team deserves it. If it weren't for the performances of Derek Luke and especially Josh Lucas, I would have taken Glory Road to have been made by people who favored Kentucky. As it stands, Glory Road will be worshipped by Miner fans (they may even think of it as the Citizen Kane of basketball films--even though Hoosiers is the better choice). Ultimately, it's not a bad film. I just wish it were better and would support a remake.

The 1966 Texas Western College Basketball Team deserves a film equal to their extraordinary achievement.

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