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'Undefeated' Filmmakers Talk Friday Nights' Fights

Originally published on Thu February 16, 2012 2:15 pm

By 2009, after years of losses, the all-black football team at Manassas High School in inner-city North Memphis, Tenn., was known as 'Whipping Boy Manassas' — one of the worst teams in the entire state. The new documentary Undefeated, recently nominated for an Oscar, captures the team's following season, and the struggles of its coach and players, on and off the field.

Co-directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin describe the team's recent history.

"For years, Manassas would sell their home berths," Lindsay tells NPR's Melissa Block. "They didn't have a home stadium, so they would sell their games to county schools that would pay them to come up and, basically, get beat. They just got the reputation as being the team you could call on to come and just beat up and make sure you won your homecoming game."

Lindsay says that the Undefeated story begins with Manassas coach Bill Courtney, the driving force behind the team and a central figure in the film.

"When he arrived there were only 17 players on the team — for a varsity football team," Lindsay says. "Over the course of the five previous seasons to our film, Bill worked to build this team ... and make them competitive again."

Courtney, a wealthy white businessman with previous high school coaching experience, volunteered for the position at Manassas.

"He's ... a natural-born coach," Martin says. "It's something that he's always loved to do, and so he found a need at this high school, and he went over and started coaching. ... There was never an agenda — it was just that he likes coaching football, and there was a program that needed him."

The program came with challenges other teams would not be facing. To describe the rough neighborhoods the players come from, Lindsay quotes a Manassas teacher: "North Memphis looks like New Orleans after the flood. We just never had a flood."

At the beginning of the film, in a scene that emphasizes what the players are up against, Courtney ticks off some stats about players he's lost.

"Starting right guard shot, no longer in school," he says. "Starting linebacker shot, no longer in school. Starting center arrested for shooting someone in the face with a BB gun. Most coaches — that would be pretty much a career's worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me."

Martin says that for the charismatic Courtney, football is an opportunity to work with and lead young men.

"Everybody says when you get these inner-city kids down, they'll lay over, and you'll beat 'em by 40," Courtney tells the team later in the film. "Not us. Everybody'll say they're 0 and 1 — they're gonna fold up camp. They'll be 2 and 8 by the end of this thing. No! Not us. You walk with your chins up. I am proud to be a Manassas Tiger on this field tonight, cause my guys didn't lay down. They got heart. Now let's put our mind with our heart and our bodies, and let's finish this thing this year."

Revealing Characters

Lindsay and Martin focus on three key players on the football team, one of them O.C. Brown. O.C. is massive: 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds. O.C. says in the film that he is not the smartest kid in the world, but he has big plans. Football is his way out of North Memphis, if he can get his grades up.

Lindsay and Martin say it was O.C.'s story that initially drew them to Memphis.

"What we thought was interesting about his storyline specifically was that he kind of navigated these two seemingly disparate communities," Martin says. "He spent part time in North Memphis, and then he would spend the week in East Memphis ... trying to get his grades up."

The film shows O.C. living with another coach in an affluent part of the city, receiving tutoring there — because tutors, the coaches were concerned, wouldn't come to O.C.'s neighborhood in North Memphis.

"Mike Ray, the volunteer coach that O.C. lived with, and Bill searched around and tried to find a tutor that would go to North Memphis, [but] they couldn't find anybody," Lindsay says. "For them the logical next step was, 'Well, he can just live with us.' "

Lindsay says his and Martin's initial intent was to explore the coaches' motivations for volunteering and offering this kind of assistance.

"It just very quickly revealed itself to us that it wasn't anything other than, 'This seems like the thing to do,' " Lindsay says.

In addition to O.C., the film profiles Montrail Brown, known as "Money," a smart and thoughtful player who also has big dreams. In some ways, he's at the emotional core of the film.

"Money was one of the first people we met when we went there to look at doing the story of O.C.," Lindsay says. "We walked in the school with Bill, and Money was waiting by the locker room for Bill to open it up so they could go into the weight room. He was the only player there."

Interested, Lindsay and Martin spoke with Money, who invited the filmmakers to his house and gave them a tour. At one point, Money takes them to the side of the house where he shows off his pet turtles.

"This is my favorite animal, actually. ... Turtles is like a human being to me," Money says. "Cause it's like, they gotta be hard on the outside, but they're really soft on the inside. Y'know, just skin and bones."

"I don't think he realized he was talking about himself," Lindsay says. "I think he was talking about people in the neighborhood, and you kind of come to realize in the film that he was really talking about himself."

Embedded Production

To capture intimate moments among players and coaches, Lindsay and Martin scaled down their production and tried to integrate themselves into the community during the nine months they spent in North Memphis.

"T.J. and I were the crew," Lindsay says. "We didn't hire a sound mixer, a boom operator. We were so small, I think, quickly people just forgot that we were there. We became an extension of the team."

"Funny enough, even three months in the process one of the kids came up to us and said, 'So who's gonna play me in the movie?' " Martin says. "We said, 'No, no, this is the movie. We're making the movie.' "

Lindsay says that sometimes their approach came with disadvantages.

"The local news would come to do a story on O.C. with their bigger cameras, big mics," Lindsay says. "[The players would] look at us like, 'Hey, I told you those guys didn't know what they were doing.' "

Inspiring A Greater Dialogue

Race, inevitably, is a dynamic at work in a film about a white man coaching at an all-black school. But Lindsay and Martin say they were careful to let the experiences of those in the community shape how they explored the questions that arose.

"The racial dynamic wasn't something that anyone ever talked about on the team," Lindsay says. "Bill happened to be white, but he was their coach, and it happened to be an all African-American school. They were his players, and it wasn't something that anyone really talked about or cared about. We were never going to bring that up in the film, because that's not what their experience is."

Martin explains that with this film, they wanted to focus on people rather than issues.

"That said, we never shied away from showing the kind of class dynamics and the race dynamics in that community," Martin says. "If you get swept away in the personal story and the human-interest aspect of the story, we're hoping that at the very least it actually inspires a greater dialogue about race and class issues after the fact. Hopefully, it's just the beginning of that conversation."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOOTBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Redmon drops straight back. Looks, throws - it is caught. Touchdown.

BLOCK: Friday night under the stadium lights.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOOTBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Twenty to 14, Manassas in midst of a comeback.

BLOCK: This isn't big-time, big-bucks Texas high school football. Manassas is an all-black inner-city team from North Memphis, Tennessee. That team's struggles and the unlikely bonds that come of them are revealed in a powerful, at times heartbreaking, new documentary titled "Undefeated." It was just nominated for an Oscar, and the film's two directors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin join me to talk about it.

Dan and T.J., thanks for coming in.

DAN LINDSAY: Thank you very much for having us.

T.J. MARTIN: Thank you for having us.

BLOCK: Let's talk about this school, Manassas High School, in North Memphis, which was known for a while for having a tiny football team, one of the worst in the entire state. It was known as whipping boy Manassas. Why? Dan?

LINDSAY: Well, for years, Manassas would sell their home berths. So they didn't have a home stadium. So they would sell their games to county schools that would pay them to come up and basically get beat. They just got the reputation as being the team you could call on to come and just beat up, and make sure you won your homecoming game.

And where our story begins is a volunteer coach by the name of Bill Courtney came. And when he arrived, there were only 17 players on the team - for a varsity football team. And over the course of the five previous seasons to our film, Bill worked to build this team with other volunteers and make them competitive again.

MARTIN: And for Bill, football is just a vehicle. It's, you know, it's really an opportunity to work with young men and help groom young men.

BLOCK: Bill is the white volunteer coach, Bill Courtney. And Bill Courtney is at the center of this film. I want to play a scene. He's talking to his team in the locker room at the very beginning of your film, which really sets up what he and the team are up against.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNDEFEATED")

BILL COURTNEY: (as Himself) Starting right guard shot, no longer in school. Starting linebacker shot, no longer in school. Starting center arrested for shooting somebody in the face with a BB-gun. Most coaches that would be pretty much a careers worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me.

BLOCK: How did this guy - he's a wealthy businessman in Memphis. How did he become this driving force for an inner-city football team?

LINDSAY: Previously to being a businessman, Bill taught and coached football at a high school. And so, he's kind of just a naturally-born coach and something that he's always love to do. And so, you know, he found a need at this high school, and he went over and started coaching. I mean, for Bill, it's always, you know, as he says, there was never an agenda. It was just that he likes coaching football and there was a program that needed him.

MARTIN: He's also a natural born salesman.

LINDSAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: He's probably the most charismatic person I've ever met in my entire life.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNDEFEATED")

COURTNEY: (as Himself) Everybody says when you get these inner-city kids down, they'll lay over and you'll beat them by 40. Not us. Everybody will say they're 0-and-one. They're going to fold up camp. They'll be two-and-eight by the end of this thing. No, not us. You walk with your chins up. I am proud to be a Manassas Tiger on this field tonight, because my guys didn't lay down. They got heart. Now, let's put our mind with our heart in our bodies, and let's finish this thing this year.

BLOCK: When we say that North Memphis is an inner-city neighborhood, why don't you describe a bit of what it looks like? You show scenes of North Memphis in the beginning of the film, and it's really, really striking.

MARTIN: One of the teachers at the school told us, after we were there for a couple of months, this quote, which I think is the perfect way to describe it. He said, "North Memphis looks like New Orleans after the flood. We just never had a flood." And I mean, visually, that's the best way to describe it. It's, you know, they're, you know, kind of shotgun houses and empty lots and...

LINDSAY: Trash everywhere.

MARTIN: Trash everywhere. It...

LINDSAY: It was kind of roaming around.

BLOCK: So you moved to Memphis to do this. How long were you there?

MARTIN: We moved there in July of 2009 and moved back to L.A. in April of 2010. So nine months.

LINDSAY: That roughly nine months, yeah.

BLOCK: What was your process for getting into this community and being there for really, really intimate moments at times?

LINDSAY: T.J. and I were the crew. You know, we didn't hire a sound mixer or a boom operator. We were so small, I think, quickly, people just forgot that we were there. We became an extension of the team.

MARTIN: Funny enough, like even three months in the process, you know, one of the kids came up to us and said: So who's going to play me in the movie? And we're like: No, no. This is the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We're making the movie.

LINDSAY: It was never good for us either when the local news would come to do like a story on O.C. And, like, the bigger cameras and there's, like, big mics and everything would show up. And, you know, they'd look at us like, see, I told you, those guys didn't know what they were doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You focused on three key players on the football team. And one of them is O.C. Brown, a massive 6'3", 315 pounds. And he, as he admits it in the film, is not the smartest kid in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: But he has big plans, right? He sees football as his way out of North Memphis, only if he can get his grades up. What happens, T. J.?

MARTIN: That was the story that initially drew us to Memphis. And what we thought was interesting about his story line specifically was that he kind of navigated these two seemingly disparate communities. You know, he spent part-time in North Memphis and then he would spend the week in East Memphis with his coach, trying to get his grades up.

BLOCK: Well, let's explain that because he's living with his coach, his white coach, in an affluent part of the city, getting tutored there because they're worried that the tutors wouldn't come to his neighborhood in North Memphis, right?

LINDSAY: Yeah. Mike Ray, the volunteer coach that O.C. lived with, him and Bill searched around and try to find a tutor that would go to North Memphis, and they couldn't find anybody. And so they just - for them, the logical next step was, well, he can just live with us. You know, it was never - as they explained it. And, you know, even going in and doing the film, we thought like, oh, this is going to be something we really need to explore. What are their motivations? Why are they doing this? And like, it just very quickly revealed itself to us that it wasn't anything other than this seems like the thing to do.

BLOCK: So there's O.C. Brown. There's another character Montrail Brown, a senior known as Money, who is really smart and thoughtful, also has big dreams and is really sort of the, I think, the emotional core of the movie in a lot of ways.

MARTIN: Money was one of the first people we met when we went there to look at doing the story of O.C. And we walked in the school with Bill, and Money was waiting by the locker room for Bill to open it up so they could into the weight room. He was the only player there. And I was like, who is that guy? So we, you know, one of the first things we did, we put a mic on him and we went to his house and said, you know, show us around. And he brought us around to the side of the house and showed us his pet turtles.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNDEFEATED")

MONTRAIL BROWN: (as Himself) This is my favorite (unintelligible) because it's like - turtles is like a human being to me because it's like they got to be hard on the outside and that - but they're really soft on the inside. You know, just skin and bones.

MARTIN: It was really interesting, because I don't think he realized he was talking about himself.

LINDSAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I think he was talking about people in the neighborhood. And you kind of come to realize in the film that he was really talking about himself.

BLOCK: I wonder if there was a sort of an uncomfortable racial component of this too. You have, you know, the white coach - wealthy white coach coming into volunteer at an all-black school, kind of like a white savior. And then, of course, the questions of what happens when he leaves? What about all the other kids in the school?

MARTIN: The racial dynamic wasn't something that anyone ever talked about on the team. You know, Bill happen to be white, but he was their coach. And it happened to be in all African-American school and they were his players. And it wasn't something that anyone really talked about or cared about. And so...

LINDSAY: Very circumstantial.

MARTIN: Yeah. And so, for us, we were like, we just can't - and then we're never going to bring that up in the film because that's not what their experience is.

LINDSAY: We never set out to make a film that was kind of an issues-based film. We really wanted to make a film that was a human interest piece. With that said, we never shied away from showing kind of the class dynamics in the race dynamics in that community.

So hopefully, if you get swept away in the personal story, in the human interest aspect of the story, we're hoping that at the very least, it'll actually inspires a greater dialogue about race and class issues after the fact. Hopefully, it's just the beginning of that conversation.

BLOCK: Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin directed the new documentary titled "Undefeated." Dan and T.J., thanks so much.

MARTIN: Thank you so much.

LINDSAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.