The inspirational sports movie formula has gotten perhaps a little too much exercise lately, with many recent tales of underdog triumph blurring together. Still, there’s always room for a good one, and despite a second half that feels more routine than its first, “Pride” is a definite crowd-pleaser. Based on a true story, this confident first feature from helmer Sunu Gonera boasts a terrific performance from Terrence Howard as the coach of an unlikely 1970s ghetto swim team, with sidekick Bernie Mac also in fine form. Pic has sleeper potential on home turf, with strong ancillary action to follow.
Prologue finds Jim Ellis (Howard) as a student competing in a 1964 North Carolina swim tournament, to catcalls from the white spectators and outright refusal from white swimmers to share the pool with him. In subsequent fracas, he takes a swing at a cop and gets arrested.
A decade later, Jim has a mathematics degree and a history of athletic excellence. But the world hasn’t changed much: When he interviews for a job at upscale Philadelphia high school Main Line Academy, Coach Bink (Tom Arnold) smirkingly informs him, “I don’t think a person like yourself” — meaning an African-American — “could communicate with our students.”
Desperate for work, Ellis accepts a low-paying position cleaning up a rec center scheduled for closure in Philly’s poor Nicetown district. He gets a less-than-warm welcome from custodian Elston (Mac), who remembers when the facility was a vital element in the community. Though it’s far from that now, he’s still furious the city is shutting it down.Confronted by Elston, neighborhood councilwoman Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise) points to the pimps and drug dealers lurking near the basketball court outside and dismisses the center as “a nesting ground for drugs, thugs and the lowest common denominator.”
Given the state the rest of the building is in, it’s a bit improbable that the pool would be in sterling condition, but oh well. That stroke of luck gives Jim a chance to flex his erstwhile championship mojo and attract the interest of five teens: Puddin’ Head (Brandon Fobbs), Andre (Kevin Phillips), Hakim (Nate Parker), Reggie (Evan Ross) and Walt (Alphonso McAuley).
When braggart Andre challenges Jim to a race that the latter handily wins, the kids are impressed enough to ask for swimming lessons. Once they’ve improved, they petition Jim and the now supportive Elston to let them compete in the area’s league. This development lures a sixth teen, Willie, aka Wilhelmina (Regine Nehy), who silences all “But you’re a girl” wisecracks with a couple lightning laps.
Still, collective cockiness outstrips barely honed skills, and the team loses its first meet against seemingly unbeatable Main Line. Worse, their behavior is less sportsmanlike than clownish, doing nothing to counter the racist attitudes they confront.
Up to this point, “Pride” more than makes up in conviction and smarts whatever it lacks in conceptual originality. Period flavor is strong but not over-pushed, and perfs are handled with a likable restraint that avoids the usual sports-pic typing (i.e. Brainiac, Casanova, Shy Stutterer — well, actually, Reggie is the latter).
While Mac does function as comic relief, he’s in character rather than comedian form here, reining in the shtick to winning effect. And Howard, who’s surely on track to major stardom, does such subtly engaging work in a stock role that when Jim’s emotions do occasionally burst through, they cut to the core.
The young thesps are all excellent (if in more ripped condition than would be common in 1974). Elise, playing an obstacle turned Jim’s ally/romantic interest, does OK in a more schematic role. Ditto Gary Sturgis as the local hustler who reps the bad choices these kids hopefully won’t make.
After the one-hour mark, however, the script begins hitting more predictable affirmational-uplift notes, which Gonera just half-heartedly tries to freshen up. There are too many tearily triumphant moments, and the de rigeur climactic match could be more rousing. (Admittedly, competitive swimming isn’t the most exciting sport in cinematic terms.) Nonetheless, pic has built up enough goodwill to keep auds stoked to the end.
Though “Pride” was shot in Louisiana, a sense of racially divided place strongly registers in a production package that’s sharp down the line. Aaron Zigman’s conventional orchestral score makes less of an impression than soundtrack’s parade of stirring ’70s soul hits.
Real-life Ellis, glimpsed during closing credits, still coaches the now nationally famed team he founded in 1971; several of his swimmers have gone on to Olympic trials.