“Remember the Titans” is a cheerfully uplifting triumph, that rare film that conveys emotion without sentimentality, and whose weaknesses are so overpowered by its strengths that you practically forget they exist.
Based on a true story, the film is set in 1971 in Alexandria, Va. Segregation has been the rule, but the local schools have been forced to integrate. As part of that, black football coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is brought in to replace local high school coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton).
You might just as well have canceled “Hee-Haw,” as far as the locals are concerned. In towns like this, high-school football is all the matters, especially when you have a winning team like the Titans. To replace the coach — with a black man, no less — is inexcusable.
Nonetheless, Yoast is so determined to be part of the action that he accepts a job as defense coach, working under the strict and militaristic Boone. The players, now a mix of white and black kids, are another matter. It is during the pre-season football camp that Boone forces them to interact, to truly integrate, and to become a real team.
Gradually, and after many dust-ups (football players are SUCH hotheads), they overcome their racial and cultural differences and work together. Most notably, this means team captain Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) making nice with his black counterpart, Julius Campbell (Wood Harris), with the others following suit.
Once that’s all settled, there’s the little matter of actually playing together. The team is successful, though some of the Powers That Be still aren’t happy with having a black man in charge, and forces conspire against the Titans to prevent them from being color-blind.
Racism is obviously a central issue here, but screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard does the near-impossible by keeping it from getting preachy. There is very little of the blatant “we don’t like your kind here” talk — just enough to remind us that things really were like that in 1971, but not so much that it gets embarrassing. Boone is the worst victim of the racism, but he refuses to be a victim — and, importantly, he doesn’t go on and on about how he’s not being a victim. He goes about not being a victim quietly, without all the melodramatic speeches we’re heard in plenty of other movies about racism.
Denzel Washington is extraordinarily charismatic, helping us forgive the fact that every time there’s a setback, his character has something wise and borderline-sanctimonious to say. (That and Bertier’s clunky dialogue with his racist girlfriend are the film’s only flaws worth mentioning.) Along with Washington, what makes the film work is that director Boaz Yakin has painted the landscape with numerous honest, real characters. They aren’t just white football players and black football players: They’re genuine people whose attitudes and interactions make this more than just another inspiring movie about sports.
There’s the funny fat guy, Lewis Lastik, played by Ethan Suplee, who goes beyond the Chris Farley-isms you’d expect to make the character poignantly innocent and sympathetic. There’s the hot-shot black student, Petey (Donald Faison), who has to learn to be a team player. Most importantly, there’s the aforementioned Bertier and Julius, whose relationship best defines the film (better than Boone and Yoast’s partnership does) and provides the most touching moments.
Touching? Yes, there’s some of that here, along with witty, intelligent, and exciting. The message of it all is obvious, and so the film doesn’t beat us over the head with it. We’re allowed to just enjoy the movie for the fantastic feel-good article that it is, and subtly become better because of it, too.
Near the end, one of the players observes that Coach Boone has demanded perfection of them, and while individually none of them are perfect, the team has gone undefeated — which means the team as a whole is perfect. Similarly, the film has its minor flaws. But taken as a whole, it’s as close to perfect as you’re going to find — a feel-good movie that’s also smart and deep, that makes you feel good without manipulating you.
A (1 hr., 59 min.; )
In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.