"Undefeated," a look inside the 2009 season of the Manassas High School (Memphis, Tenn.) football team, won Best Documentary Feature on Sunday at the 2012 Academy Awards.
It's a fitting postscript for the story of an underdog group of players and their coach, since the film was not considered a front-runner for the award. But its unscripted win should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the story behind the film.
Three years ago, filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin set out to make a documentary about Manassas offensive lineman O.C. Brown. It was a story reminiscent of “The Blind Side.” Brown, a talented black football player from North Memphis, was living part-time with an upper-class white family as he chased his dream of playing college football.
Turns out that was just part of the story.
“We quickly realized there could be a greater film if we followed the season of the team itself,” Martin said.
So Martin and Lindsay spent the fall of 2009 documenting the team's turbulent season. The resulting work, “Undefeated,” is a moving and inspirational film that explores the dynamics of sport and the elusive prospect of success. In contrasting the interlinked fates of the coach and three complicated players, Lindsay and Martin examine class, race, teamwork and pride.
For years, the Manassas football team had been known throughout Tennessee as a laughingstock -- or a “whipping boy” as one infamous newspaper headline succinctly summed it up. Schools near and far lined up to schedule Manassas for their homecoming games, knowing it was a guaranteed win.
Enter Bill Courtney. A successful white businessman, Courtney spent six years turning the football team around as a volunteer head coach at the predominantly black school. A caring and charismatic figure, Courtney put in many more hours than the typical volunteer coach. As a result, Manassas entered the 2009 season with an opportunity to do something no team in program history had ever done -- win a playoff game.
There was talent on his roster, but also trouble. Chavis Daniels may have been the team’s most gifted athlete, but anger and behavioral problems threatened to derail him at any moment. Montrail Brown, known as "Money," was an undersized overachiever on the offensive line with big dreams. And then there was Brown, the original focus of the documentary, who had the talent to play for any college he wanted if he could just make the grade.
Like other great high school works -- “Hoop Dreams” and the book “Friday Night Lights” come to mind -- moments that could not have been scripted are captured vividly. It gives the work a tremendous vitality, spontaneity and dramatic unpredictability.
“The movies we watched the most were 'Miracle' and 'Glory,'" Lindsay said. “Because in the movie, you‘re entering it through one character but it’s really about four characters. Structurally [in 'Glory'], the battalion was a character, and we looked at ['Undefeated'] as though it were a war film of a team going into that last battle."
Simply keeping the team unified was Courtney's biggest battle, and the toll that task takes on him and his family is palpable. But he wouldn't have had it any other way.
"I told them one thing: Be honest. Don't embellish or exaggerate what you see," Courtney said. "Tell the truth, and I'll give you everything."
The filmmakers amassed more than 500 hours of footage over four months. “We shot every practice,” Martin said. They used the time to establish a trust with Courtney and the players that is evident in the film. And while the Oscar win confers a special level of recognition for the film, to its star, it's all about the honesty of the story.
"The first time I saw the film, at the South by Southwest Film Festival last March, I was with Chavis," Courtney recalled. "After the screening ended, Dan came up to me and said, 'What did you think?' and Chavis had tears coming out, and he said, 'You got it right.'"