Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hoosiers is not racist

This is the second in a series in which I revisit films that I didn't like as much as most people did, and see if I need to reconsider my position. It runs on Tuesdays. For previous entries in the series, see my Second Chances label in the column to the right.

I am part of the most privileged ethnic group in the United States, the white male.

Yet, as those of you who have read me for awhile know, I go through these periods where I think everything I see in popular culture is racist. In fact, of the five previous posts I've written that have the label "racial politics," I wrote four of them in the space of two months between mid-August and mid-October last year. Since then I guess I've cooled off a bit.

I'm not the victim of this racism, of course. I'm fighting battles on others' behalves, or at least I think I am. They may not care if I'm fighting these battles or not.

And I must have been going through one of these periods back in late 1991 or early 1992, when I first saw David Anspaugh's Hoosiers.

It was my freshman year in college, and one of my two roommates was watching Hoosiers in our common room. I was working on something on my computer, but was paying enough attention to the movie that I gave myself credit for having seen it. But the fact that I wasn't paying 100% attention certainly contributed to the following belief, which I've held for almost two decades:

In asking us to cheer for the white basketball players instead of the black basketball players, Hoosiers was being racist.

Or if not out-and-out racist, then at least racially insensitive.

Before you start drafting your outraged retort in my comments section, you'll be glad to know that last night's viewing of the movie corrected my misguided impression. And I have my friend "Steve" (that may or may not be his name) to thank for this.

Steve is a huge college basketball fan, whose allegiances rest with the North Carolina Tar Heels. I've known him for eight years, three-and-a-half of which were spent working one cubicle apart from each other. He considers Hoosiers one of his favorite movies of all time, so my divergent opinion was likely to come up eventually.

To his credit, Steve never got all apoplectic when I told him I thought the movie was racially problematic. Perhaps that's because he's acutely aware of the politics of race as well. But he did encourage me to give the movie a second viewing. He understood how I might have read racial undertones into the movie's final game, in which a team of just seven players from Hickory, Indiana upsets a bigger, stronger, deeper team from South Bend, Indiana to win the state championship. After all, all seven of the Hickory players are white, while most of the South Bend players are black. But he said I should give it a second chance.

Back in college, I formed a strong opinion based on weak evidence, seeing the colors of those two teams and proceeding to jump on my high horse. All I could see was that the movie celebrated a victory for the historically privileged race of players, while the historically underprivileged race could not even find a salve for its centuries of wounds with one simple state basketball championship.

But Steve convinced me that it was more a story of a small, underfunded, undermanned team doing battle against a big team with lots of resources. As I watched last night, I realized the truth in this assertion. I also realized that there were white players on South Bend as well. My mind remembered that they were all black seven-footers, the ultimate basketball Goliath.

Another thing that lets Hoosiers off the hook, if it needed any more letting off the hook, is that it's loosely based on an actual team from Milan, Indiana, which won the state championship in 1954 (Hoosiers was set in 1951-1952). Milan's opponent was the well-funded Muncie Bearcats, which had won four state championships. Presumably, there are more black families living in Muncie than in Milan.

What's more, all the other teams Hickory beats on its improbable run to the state championship are white. And some of those teams are portrayed as thuggish brawlers. The film is notable for choosing not to portray South Bend that way, which it might have done if there really were any negative racial elements in play here. Instead, the final game is a good, clean matchup between two talented teams.

Okay, so the movie isn't racist. But how much did I like it?

Well, enough to turn my thumbs down into a thumbs up. But I should come clean here and say there's a limit to how much affection I can have for any sports movie. It's a topic that deserves a longer post at another time, but I don't really like sports movies very much, despite the fact that I'm a huge sports fan. There are many exceptions to this rule, sports movies I love, but generally speaking, I prefer my feats of athletic derring-do to be real: that's the only way I can believe they really happened. If a screenwriter writes a last-minute shot, I find it incredible. The only way I believe it is if I see it happen in real life. (Of course, the last-second shot in Hoosiers is based on something that really happened, as are the last-second shots in many sports movies. For some reason, by the very virtue of appearing in a sports movie, it still rings false to me.)

As sports movies go, though, Hoosiers is definitely solid. Good acting by Gene Hackman as the coach and Dennis Hopper as the town drunk, who's also a brilliant basketball mind and the father of one of the players -- Hopper received an Oscar nomination for his work. And though I always find basketball choreography to be stagy, consisting of far more easy layups than I ever see in real basketball games because they are easy to film, I was impressed by one scene in particular on that front. Hackman's Norman Dale is trying to reach out to the town's basketball prodigy, Jimmy Chitwood (Marius Valainis), who stopped playing after the death of the old coach, a father figure to him. Jimmy's shooting on a makeshift court in his backyard, using a ball that has almost no bounce to it. Yet in a single camera take, while Dale talks at the silent Jimmy, Jimmy sinks around six or seven 18-footers in a row. It made me wonder how many times they had to shoot that scene before Valainis hit every shot he was supposed to hit.

Second Chance Verdict, Hoosiers: Not the most original film I've ever seen, but it successfully follows a tried-and-true formula for sports movies, and has a lot of heart.

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