"Pride" is a generic title for a generic movie, but at least the film isn't unpleasant to sit through. Inspired by a true story, the picture hits all the predictable bases and conflicts of its formulaic plot with a heart-on-its-sleeve sincerity that wavers between truthful and overly naive. Terrence Howard was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in 2005's "Hustle & Flow," and so naturally the next stop in his career trajectory would be as an inspirational figure who elects himself as swim coach to a group of wayward Philadelphia youths. It is a role that Howard plays exceptionally well, but also one that is a dime-store creation with few characteristics to distinguish him from any other coach/teacher/authoritative figure in this never-ending genre.
The year is 1974, and Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) can't catch a break. A college graduate with a degree in mathematics, he is turned down ad nauseam for the teaching positions he applies for. Out of work, low on money, and without a home, Jim accepts a job as a cleaner and boxboy at the run-down P.D.R.Philadephia Department of Recreationa place about to be closed for good. He is desperate to make a difference in the troubled lives of the teen boys who play basketball in the courtyard, and decides that forming a swim team could teach them some valuable lessons about responsibility and willpower. Met by racial discrimination from some of their competitors, they all face an uphill climb if they hope for a shot at being taken seriously and making it to the regional finals.
"Pride" was directed by Sunu Gonera, a first-time filmmaker with a vibrant flair for time-specific details such as hairstyles, fashions, cars, and recognizable, toe-tapping music of the period. An authentic if not exactly nostalgic look back at 1974, the film gets right the sense that the world then, like the world today, and the world fifty years ago, has its own set of problems and pitfalls. Gonera might go a little overboard in his despicable reaction shots of the token white extras reacting to the mere sight of the black characters, but it nonetheless proves a point that racism in the country was swept under the rug for a time after the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, but was still very much a present daily evil.
Taken as a plain, old sports drama mixed with a "teacher-makes-good" tale, "Pride" is sporadically affecting at best and simply dull at worst. The teen characters (most of them appearing to be in their mid-twenties) whom Jim coaches are shoddily developed by a screenplay from Norman Vance Jr. (2005's "Roll Bounce
"), Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, and J. Mills Goodloe that fails to dictate specific personalities or background info about any of them. Andre (Kevin Phillips), for whatever reason, is appointed the team captain and has to contend with the shady Franklin (Gary Sturgis), who lords over the neighborhood. Hakim (Nate Parker) is cared for by his older sister, Sue (Kimberly Elise), a city official instructed to tear the rec center down. Reggie (Evan Ross) is less self-assured than his peers and has a stutter. Willie (Regine Nehy) is the sole female teammate. That's about all that is learned about any of them, and in comparison to the high schoolers in 2007's "Freedom Writers
," their lives really don't seem all that bad and indomitable. This lack of detail and emotional connection detracts from the film because the viewer doesn't get to care about them enough for the story to make much of an imprint.
At the heart of the picture is Terrence Howard (2006's "Idlewild
"), infusing with a spirited determination the real-life character of Jim Ellis, who went out and found meaning in his life despite the hurdles he had to jump and the disappointments he had to face to get there. Howard's passionate turn, as well as the film's two solidly built relationshipsthat between Jim and rec center janitor Elston (Bernie Mac), and Jim and Suealmost make up for the sheer derivative nature of "Pride." In addition, Bernie Mac (2005's "Guess Who
") reels things in for a low-key but sometimes slyly funny performance as Elston, and Kimberly Elise (2004's "The Manchurian Candidate
") is lovely as the tough but sympathetic Sue. None of the younger actors get a chance to show off their talents, but they do fine with the minimal dialogue they are given.
"Pride" never bothers to show the P.D.R. team win any swim meets, but no matter. With the convenient appearance of a music montage showing them rising in the area's rankingsthis, by the way, is a convention one can practically set his or her watch to in the sports genrethe team find themselves in Baltimore for a climactic showdown at the regional finals. This third act, just like the first two, is competently filmed but not compelling. As the feel-good instruments swell in the background and director Sunu Gonera breaks out the slow-motion editing, the viewer is left to ponder how many versions of the exact same movie they will have to sit through for the remainder of their lifetime. "Pride" is neither one of the best nor one of the worst of its kind. And, hey, at least it's not about touchdowns or slam dunks.