Film Review ***: ...Glory Road... Worth Traveling
Inspiring Sports Movie Inaccurate but Heartwarming
By Brian Chase
Directed by James Gartner
Written by Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Starring Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Austin Nichols, Evan Jones, Emily Deschanel
In sports movies, as in life, the important thing is often not the destination, but the journey. This is as true in “Glory Road,” the Hollywood retelling of the 1966 Texas Western College basketball team. In this case, it’s well known that Texas Western, a small school, played all black players against the all-white national power Kentucky in the 1966 finals and won. The win inspired a generation of black basketball players like Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo, who went on to revolutionize the game. The movie itself suffers nothing from the audience knowing the ending in advance, because the real focus of the movie is on the players on the team, the racial obstacles they overcame, and how the journey changed them personally. Because of that focus, the movie is entertaining, funny, and well worth seeing.
The central figures of “Glory Road” are the coach of the team, Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) and the black players he recruits and runs to exhaustion. But the best moments of the movie are not the basketball games, but the social interactions the players have as they change from seven strangers and five leftover white players to a whole team. The best quality of the movie is that it is not afraid to show the black players as human, with their own prejudices and racial stereotypes. When some of the teammates first see Hispanic people in El Paso (the site of Texas Western) one of them says “Now, to these guys you say Hola” with a hard H.
There are some excellent fish-out-of-water scenes, when the black players get drunk in a Hispanic bar or when the white teammates are invited to an overwhelmingly black party (which has a great example of bad white guy dancing). The funniest parts of the movie are the teasing and razzing that goes on during practices and outings, with teammates busting on each other. Chris Cleveland, the writer who adapted the movie from Don Haskins’ autobiography and consultation with the real-life players, deserves credit for making dialogue both believable and entertaining; the cast completes the script by delivering their lines well.
The most dramatic themes in the movie are the personal changes and challenges that the players go through during the course of the season. Willie Cager (Damaine Radcliff) struggles with his desire to play basketball despite having hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that threatens his life. Nevil Shed (Al Shearer) learns gradually how to overcome his own self doubt and play with strength in both life and his post. Indeed, the whole team comes together in the face of racial hate, from trash, food, and spit being thrown on them, to getting beaten in restrooms, and worse. Even though each player only has a little screen time focused on his problems, the terrific acting makes it count, and the movie gives you a sense of how every one of the seven black players, and a couple of their white teammates, grow during the season.
Unfortunately, though, a few problems keep the movie from being remarkable. One such error is the long litany of historical inaccuracies that the movie puts in for dramatic effect. For instance, Haskins did not win the championship until his fifth season at Texas Western, and the movie has him winning it in his first. Additionally, there were plenty of black players in college ball before Texas Western, although not in the southern leagues; the film glosses over this. In the final game, the movie has Texas Western trailing after the half, when Kentucky never regained the lead after halftime. And in the previous victory over Kansas, the movie overlooks that Kansas had three black players other than JoJo White, and that his famous shot where he stepped out of bounds was not the last shot of the game. One expects some of these inaccuracies in every Hollywood movie based on true events, but they do detract a little from the enjoyment.
The other failing of the movie is that the character of Don Haskins remains underdeveloped. Josh Lucas plays the same stern taskmaster throughout the entire movie, and almost never cracks a smile. True, the movie did have a whole team who needed to develop as characters, but the coach is also one of the most important people in the story. The most emotional scenes for Haskins are ones in which he doesn’t talk: when he watches his son sleep or contemplates in the empty arena late at night. The movie would have done well to show Haskins as a more rounded figure.
But despite these shortcomings, “Glory Road” is an entertaining movie, and was well worth an hour and half of my life. I heartily recommend it for any moviegoer, basketball fan or otherwise.