High-SchoolFootball: Manassas High School (Memphis

'Undefeated' wins Best Documentary Oscar

February, 26, 2012
2/26/12
10:15
PM ET

Related: Life imitating art imitating football

"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.'"

Life imitating art imitating football

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
10:37
AM ET

Related: "Undefeated" filmmakers get it right

As America's most popular sport, it's no surprise the world of football is a common setting for TV shows and movies. That's why some of the characters in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Undefeated" about the 2009 season of the Manassas High School (Memphis, Tenn.) football team feel so familiar. Here, we break down the characters in the doc with their real-life and fictional equivalents.

Bill Courtney as coach Eric Taylor
The beloved coach of the Dillon Panthers and East Dillon Lions in the TV version of “Friday Night Lights,” Coach Taylor is tough on his players but is also able to connect with them and motivate them to succeed beyond what they thought was possible. That aptly describes Coach Courtney as well. A father figure to many of the members of the Manassas team, Courtney is relentlessly positive and brings the best out of his players. Success on the field, however, doesn’t mean as much to him as impacting his players’ lives and setting them on the path to a successful life. Courtney also has a knack for delivering inspirational speeches, although he never quite develops a catchphrase like, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

Montrail Brown as Rudy
The title character from the 1993 film “Rudy,” Rudy Ruettiger was an undersized defensive lineman who managed to walk on to the mighty Notre Dame football team. In his one and only play from scrimmage, he recorded a sack. Montrail Brown, known as "Money," was also an undersized lineman, only on the offensive side of the ball. Thanks to his hard work and football smarts, Montrail overcomes some serious adversity to become a valuable asset to the Manassas football team.

O.C. Brown as Michael Oher
The inspiration for the 2009 film “The Blind Side,” Oher’s story is extremely similar to Brown’s. Like Oher, Brown was from Memphis and showed big-time potential on the offensive line. They were both taken in by upper-class white families who provided stability and helped them realize their dream of playing college football. Academics was Oher’s biggest hurdle to playing in college, as he needed to raise his GPA from below a 1.0 to close to a 3.0. For Brown, the challenge is scoring a 16 on his ACT.

Chavis Daniels as Malik Wright
The hothead quarterback for the San Diego Sabers in BET’s “The Game,” Wright is his own worst enemy. His temper is his downfall, and that applies to Chavis as well. Chavis misses the beginning of the 2009 preseason while at a youth detention center. When he rejoins the team, his anger and behavioral problems appear no better than before. Courtney suspends him indefinitely, inspiring Chavis to begin turning things around.

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