Pride: Uplifting Tale of Teacher

Based on true events, the new inspirational movie “Pride” tells the story of Jim Ellis, a charismatic schoolteacher in the 1970s who changed lives forever by founding and coaching an African-American swim team in one of Philadelphias roughest neighborhoods.

Though well-intentioned, and grounded in a particular time and locale, “Pride” represents yet another uplifting formulaic picture that depicts the stumbling blocks on the road to success by following all the familiar conventions of other inspirational films. Problem is, as sports, swimming is not a particularly dramatic activity, and thus the visuals become repetitive after the first reel or so.

It’s too bad that the studios have not figured out a viable way to show these uniquely American optimistic sagas in schools, as educational tools, since “Pride” is more significant as a social document than as film art.

As the lead, Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard (who’s also credited as the film’s executive producer) gives a charismatic performance that not only holds the picture together, but elevates it at least a notch or two above most generic items of a cycle that seems to be popular of late. Secondary cast, which includes Bernie Mac and Kimberly Elise, also helps make the film more tolerable, concealing the rough treatment that the picture gets from first-time director Sunu Gonera.

When the story begins, in 1973, Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard), a college-educated African-American, cant find a job. Driven by his love of competitive swimming, Jim refurbishes an abandoned recreational pool in a down-at-its-heels Philadelphia neighborhood with the help of its custodian Elston (Bernie Mac).

When the pool is marked for demolition, Jim fights back–by starting the citys first African-American swim team. Recruiting teens from the streets, Jim struggles to transform a motley team of novices into capable swimmers. What adds suspense is the pressing time factor: Jim needs to accomplish his goals in time for the upcoming state championships.

As racism, violence and an unsympathetic city official threaten to tear the team apart, Jim must do everything he can to convince his swimmers that victory, both in and out of the pool, is within reach. By turns comic, rousing and poignant, “Pride” unfolds as a triumphant story about team spirit and individual and collective courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

The screenplay by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe, and Norman Vance, Jr., which is based on Goodloe and Vance’s story, is meant as a testimony to the power of dreams and their ability to inspire and transform human life.

The first chapters delineate the social background of the smart, motivated twenty-something African-American Jim Ellis, who had been to college and traveled around the world. When he first comes to Philadelphia in the 1970s in search of a teaching job, he finds only closed doors. In the eyes of the citys employers, Ellis passion for education and his unique experience as a college-level competitive swimmer doesnt qualify him for a position.

Faced with no other options, Ellis grudgingly accepts work closing down the operations at Marcus Foster, a city recreational center in the poverty-stricken Nicetown neighborhood, not expecting that the dead-end job would actually lead him to his true calling: teaching students how to swim.

Ellis’s goal is to provide good role models for the youngsters, and positive situations where they could grow, by exposing them to other things in the community, showing them another side of the planet.

At the end, we learn that, 35 years later, Ellis is still teaching Nicetown kids how to swim. During that time, Marcus Foster has become an extracurricular outlet for kids throughout the neighborhood, with Ellis instilling pride in his young athletes and inspiring most of them to seek college educations and professional careers.

The screenwriters don’t neglect the broader socio-economic context: Like many inner-city neighborhoods in the 1970s, this one was suffering from a crumbling economy and municipal negligence.

As interpreted by Howard, Ellis doesn’t perceive his activity as saving troubled kids, but rather as offering them, as he says, “something a little different, a bit more untraditional.” Ellis sees swimming as an opportunity to build something, to give these kids hope, direction, something to believe in, and in turn finds hope himself. Howard plays Ellis as part surrogate father figure, part friend, which brings him closer to the kids, both emotionally and pragmatically.

The writers might have idealized too much Ellis for he comes across as a modest man to a fault about his accomplishments. But they shrewdly decide to focus on Ellis’ early years, which are more dramatic, when the swimming programs fate was uncertain and the P.D.R. swim team first began competing. That period is the most exciting, because everything was just beginning.

Adding color and complexity to the ultimately predictable saga is Kimberly Elise, as Sue Davis, a city councilwoman, who becomes romantically involved with Ellis, who initially is wary of Ellis and his plans for the recreational center. Just as single-minded about her work and the community, Sue is also the older sister and guardian of one of the young swimmers, and therefore very protective of him. At first, she neither trusts Ellis nor understands what hes doing; she’s concerned that the kids might become distracted and even disappointed by Ellis’ pipe dreams.

Comedian Bernie Mac is also well cast as Elston, the recreation centers janitor, a man whos lost his spirit. When Elston first arrived in Philly, he tried to make something of Marcus Foster, he did everything in his powers to keep it afloat, but he lost faith. Hence, when Ellis comes along, Elston immediately recognizes him as a guy with the same type of background and the same type of hurt. Later on, when Elston joins Ellis on the mission to save the center, his life literally turn around.

One note that is particularly interesting is related to gender. The team is all male, with one determined exception, Wiloma, a headstrong girl (Regine Nehy) who Elston takes under his wing. Wiloma, who Elston calls Miss Willie, is a young black female who just barges in and announces she wants to swim, Elston appreciates her determination and he becomes her guardian angel. Willie doesn’t want to be on the streets hanging around the guys. Moreover, she wants to show that women won’t be held back just because the authorities say it’s not a good idea.

Ellis co-ed team is also in conflict with a group of white suburban students, from Philadelphias preppy Main Line communities, who initially claim that black swimmers dont belong in their sport, let alone in their pools. The lead tormentor, Jake (Scott Reeves) is a racist, a star swimmer driven further by his hard-ass coach, Jake (Tom Arnold), who encourages his students negative opinions of the hopeful P.D.R. team.

Cast

Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard)
Elston (Bernie Mac)
Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise)
Bink (Tom Arnold)
PuddinHead (Brandon Fobbs)
Walt (Alphonso McAuley)
Willie (Regine Nehy)
Hakim (Nate Parker)
Andre (Kevin Phillips)
Jake (Scott Reeves)
Reggie (Evan Ross)
Franklin (Gary Sturgis)

Crew

Directed by Sunu Gonera
Story by Kevin Michael Smith & Michael Gozzard
Screenplay by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe, and Norman Vance, Jr.
Produced by Brett Forbes, Patrick Rizzotti, Michael Ohoven, Adam Rosenfelt, Paul Hall
Executive Producers: Terrence Howard, Victoria Fredrick, Sam Nazarian, Eberhard Kayser, Malcolm Petal, Kimberly C. Anderson, Michael Paseornek, John Sacchi
Co-Producers: Marc Schaberg and Randy Winograd
Line Producer: Rob Ortiz
Director of Photography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Underwater DP: Pete Romano
Production Designer: Steve Saklad
Edited by Billy Fox, A.C.E.
Costume Designer: Paul A. Simmons
Music Supervisor: Jay Faires
Music: Aaron Zigman
Casting Directors: Anya Collof and Amy McIntyre Britt
Editor: Billy Fox