Remember the Titans, “Based on a True Story,” and the Sometimes-No-BS Wonder of Great Cliches

In lieu of a regular movie review this week, I thought I’d respond to a Deadspin post yesterday about Greg Paspatis, former kicker for T.C. Williams high school under coach Herman Boone. Of course we all remember said high school and said coach from the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans. For those who don’t remember, a quick synopsis, courtesy of IMDb:

It’s 1971 in Alexandria, Virginia and successful high school football coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) has just been deprived of the head coaching job at the newly integrated T.C. Williams High School to make way for equally successful black coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington). Yoast debates pursuing opportunities elsewhere, but when most of his white players vow to sit out the season unless he coaches, he changes his mind and stays on as Boone’s assistant.

Throughout training camp and the season, Boone and Yoast’s black and white players learn to accept each other, to work together, and that football knows no race. As they learn from each other, Boone and Yoast also learn from them and in turn, the whole town learns from the team, the Titans. Thus, they are prepared to pursue the State Championship and to deal with an unthinkable tragedy that threatens to sink their perfect season.

Sounds cheesy, but so does every synopsis. It’s a great movie. Unfortunately for all of us who feel that way, the Deadspin post is not good news. It follows Paspatis’ efforts to tell the truth about the school and Coach Boone. From the article and what else I’ve heard in the years since the movie came out, it’s accurate and damning. It’s a story of a school twice as large as its rivals, which naturally dominated in the premier sport of the time and place: football. Herman Boone is not flattered either. Apparently he wasn’t really a good coach and a jerk and even worse, since the movie, has gone on a bunch of speaking tours designed for self-promotion above all, without regard for facts. Furthermore, the school integrated in 1965, six years before the film claimed it was desegregated. Race relations weren’t much of a problem during that season, or at least not close to as much as the movie claimed. Bottom line: any investigation pretty much tears most of what we love about the movie to shreds.

My dad grew up in Northern Virginia and his former high school remains a rival of T.C. Williams. He loved the movie, despite being aware of some of its distortions. He was also really nice to not crush my childhood idolatry of the movie in too bad a way. Perhaps I’m too biased, but I submit to you that it’s possible to love the movie as separate from what really happened. Like almost everything in this world, it was a tremendously flawed project, but one that we can still appreciate.

Call me a sap, but I don’t understand how you could go into the movie on a normal day and fail to be moved on the way out. Especially if you’re a sports fan. It’s one of those experiences that makes you glad you learned all the sentimental cliches once upon a time. They are useful sometimes after all. Perhaps our love/hate relationship with cliches comes from a simultaneous acknowledgement of the fact that many of them articulate the way we want things to be, while reminding us of their impossibility, shallowness, and often banality. Of course it’s cliche to say “this movie shows us all humans are more alike than different” and “racial divides crumble when confronted with the power of the human spirit” and “humans are incredible when they come together.” But why does the fact that they’re often said take away their meaning? Aren’t they deep truths we should aspire to experience, prove true, and depict in art? Even more importantly, don’t stories exist to expose such truths that are too hard to see in the grind and messiness of everyday life?

Over time our cliches have been cheapened with Budweiser ads and political slogans and consolatory bromides and so much more, but we shouldn’t forsake them because they’ve been misused. Instead we should hold onto them that much tighter so they never lose their real purpose, because if all of them turn out to be lies then I don’t think anything’s true. We should always be skeptical when they appear but never abandon hope that this time we may be seeing the real thing. It’s so easy to be cynical because it’s so often justified, but this sometimes lets us off the hook. What’s much harder is to find the good in things and live by it. No wonder we avoid that search and censor those questions with snideness or choose to withdraw to avoid further pain. Maybe if we choose to embrace the messages of this movie (a movie not without the heartbreaks and irreconcilable tragedies of real life) we can make it mean something real. Of course it’s imperfect, spoiler alert: everything is. I’m glad Greg Paspatis is telling the real truth about T.C. and Boone because they shouldn’t get the credit for this. But that doesn’t mean that everything depicted in the movie is a lie.

The biggest flaw of the movie (apart from the fact that the actors are obviously not in high school, Boone’s wife has a horrible Southern accent, and that last TD run featured some absurd blocking from a skinny QB) is that it claimed to be “based on a true story” and that true story occurred in Alexandria, VA cerca 1971. It didn’t. But I think it is a true story of a different sort, one that’s been told and told and forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again, all over the world throughout all of time. Let’s take this chance to remember it.


Raging Bull (Moderate Spoilers)


Last night I watched Raging Bull, a 1980 Martin Scorsese black and white biopic starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty. De Niro plays Italian boxer Jake La Motta, a wild, paranoid man and a brutally effective fighter who for a time was the middle-weight champion of the world. The movie covers his rise and fall. It takes place mostly in New York City, but also covers other areas toward the end.

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