Fantasy and Desire: On Friday Night Lights and Coach Carter

  • Jared SextonEmail author


This chapter offers a contrapuntal reading of Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights (2004) and Thomas Carter’s Coach Carter (2005), two films wherein high school sport adjudicates young men’s education and allegorizes economic prospects in the contemporary United States. The former is set in a predominantly white working-class rural community in 1980s West Texas and the latter in a predominantly black working-class urban community in 1990s Northern California. Both films feature individual salvation for the community’s young men tutored by a tough-loving patriarch and pivot on the masculine ambition to flee dead-end lives. However, these two films are not two versions of the same story. Rather, the success and possibility of Friday Night Lights is premised on the failure and impossibility of Coach Carter.


This chapter presents a contrapuntal reading of two additional Hollywood films in which high school sport serves as a practical ground for adjudicating the education of young black men and an allegory of prospects for economic development, political engagement, and social change toward greater racial equality in the contemporary United States. Here we move from the swimming pools of the Northeast Corridor to the football fields of the Deep South and the basketball courts of the West Coast. Many of the themes addressed along the way will be familiar from the previous two chapters; however, the particular ideological twists taken by these now familiar narrative structures, dramatic tropes, and visual clichés in the works discussed below warrant special attention.

Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights (2004) adapts H.G. Bissinger’s bestselling journalistic account of the City of Odessa in the late 1980s: a predominantly white, working-class oil town in rural West Texas racked by the stagnation of its local industry in amid the restructuring of Reaganomics. The residents’ struggle against unforeseen economic crisis is seemingly exacerbated by the paradoxically imposing presence of distant black communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex some 350 miles away, communities supposed to be in political ascendance in the post-civil rights era but that are symbolized, importantly, by preternatural physical power. The gridiron is thus the site of their potential collective redemption because a political response is out of the question. Thomas Carter’s Coach Carter (2005) is an original screenplay drawn from the brief national media attention cast on the city of Richmond, California in the late 1990s: a predominantly black, working-class oil town in the metropolitan San Francisco Bay Area likewise suffering from the decimation of its working-class job base. But residents also face the dire consequences of a state-sanctioned underground economy of drugs, guns, and prostitution, and the menace of racial profiling and mass imprisonment as expanded under the Clinton Administration . They address this quotidian catastrophe by refusing to countenance the ongoing repression of black political organizing and forfeiting the public sphere whose emergence made possible the “hoop dreams ” they maintain against all odds.1

Both films feature narratives of individual salvation for the community’s young men, the rescue of its most suitable candidates enabled by uncompromising mentorship and firm tutelage in the rites of adult masculinity by a tough-loving patriarch representing the values of another day and age: Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thorton) in Friday Night Lights and Coach Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson ) in Coach Carter . Both films, as well, pivot on stimulating the particularly masculine ambition to flee the horizon of dead-end lives, developing the will and the skill to actualize the escape plan, and managing the peculiar pressures brought to bear when this mission—which, again, displaces questions of political struggle and deceptively condenses multiple sources of social anguish—is figured as a matter of bestowing the rudiments of masculinity and inaugurating a quest for proper manhood (Baker 2003). However, these surface similarities should not lead the viewer to discover some overarching project or underlying common ground. Not only are these two films not simply two versions of the same story; more importantly, the success of the one is entirely dependent on the failure of the other. Put differently, the possibility of the former (Friday Night Lights), the efficacy of its symbolic universe, is premised on the impossibility of the latter (Coach Carter), its quarantine as a defensive fantasy without objective value. Race, specifically, is the fulcrum of this distribution, the organizing principle of its economy.2

The Artifice of Camaraderie

Within the precincts of this founding racial division, the moral victory of the young white Permian Panthers’ valiant and narrow defeat at the hands of their black urban counterparts (whose mythic invincibility is dealt a symbolic blow) promises to redeem, though it cannot deliver, the entire community of Odessa, Texas (a potential converted in the actual the following year with the team’s state championship win). In contrast, the young black Richmond Oilers’ coming of age as college-minded student-athletes in their valiant and narrow defeat at the hands of their mostly white suburban counterparts (whose superiority is reaffirmed even as grudging respect is offered, not incidentally, by their single black “superstar”) can be showered with the sentimentality of personal triumph only by reaffirming the dereliction of black life in Richmond, California and passionately heralding the exceptions that prove the rule—“a system,” Coach Carter declares, “that’s designed for you to fail.”

In fact, the question of exceptionality is at the heart of these two films. Permian High School is, after all, no stranger to winning. Quite the contrary, the young men we encounter in Friday Night Lights inherit the burden, but also, crucially, the opportunity, of a notable athletic tradition, carrying the torch that has been passed to them with great expectations—from overbearing parents and anxious alumni concerned with protecting their good name and securing local bragging rights, from former players hoping to extend the twilight of their former glory, from admiring children in search of proper idols, and from adoring female peers soliciting the attention of small-town heroes with constant flattery and sexual favor. Of course, a distinction is drawn at points between the single-minded pursuit of “state”—the undisputed top prize in Texas high school football—and the supposed distractions of scholarly endeavor, but unlike in Coach Carter this tension is startlingly muted in the film (Fig. 3.1).
Fig. 3.1

Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) gives his team a halftime speech in Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights (2004). Image reproduced under terms of fair use

The point is underscored by the anomalous case of Boobie Miles, one of the few black players to pass through the Panther program (aside from Ivory “Preacher Man” Jackson who does anything but preach; he does not speak at all, in fact, until the climatic scenes of the championship game where he takes up the role of vocal leader in Boobie’s absence) and the clear “heart and soul” of the 1988 squad. The issue of Boobie’s academic life is preempted in the opening scenes, in which he flippantly asserts that he gets good grades—“of course”—because he is an athlete and not despite the demands of that role. The obvious implication is that his grades or, more pointedly, his education is immaterial, it lies beyond the sphere of concern inhabited by the coaching staff, the teaching faculty, and the larger Odessa community. It is unimportant to him as well and even to L.V. Miles (Grover Coulson), the father figure who adopts Boobie as his own son, removing him from the foster care system and arranging his attendance at a high school beyond the bounds of the black ghetto in which he was born and raised as a ward of the state. When a serious knee injury prematurely ends Boobie’s high school career and effectively reduces his prospects for college football to ruin, he is left sobbing: “I can’t do nothing else but play football.”

For Boobie, football is not simply a means to facilitate admission to college or defray its otherwise prohibitive costs; it is also meant to be his subsequent career, his chance to save himself and his family. College, in other words, is supposed to function as the same hollow institutional affiliation as high school, merely a forum for athletic achievement en route to the unimaginable fortunes of the professional sports world. When this Faustian bid fails—as it almost always does—there is no gesture of dissent from any quarter, only a nod of regret: “tough break, kid.” In any case, Boobie was to be a sacrifice for the team, for the school, and for the city in this precise sense: as the team transforms the substance of its internal bonds at his direct expense and in his name—all the better now as a non-competitive mascot—departing from the blind drive to win only to return to it more proficiently, his subtraction from the journey to maturity seems both permissible and preferable.

This preference becomes most evident at the denouement in which Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), and Brian “Chavo” Chavez (Jay Hernandez) reflect fondly on their accomplishments at Permian High and commence the properly nostalgic regard that those who came before them seem to relish and those to come will no doubt establish. This scene is only readable beyond the terms of pathos because the end of this chapter for the youthful trio is indemnified by the soft landings featured in the final still-frame sequence that announces their relatively bright futures. Each of their college experiences and subsequent professional achievements over the last decade are offered as palliative to the bittersweet runner-up finish. Awkwardly, Boobie is mentioned as well, off-screen, but it can only be stated about him that he does, in fact, still live somewhere and has somehow managed to father twin children in the meantime. He is held up, implicitly, as living proof that without your education you don’t have anything. Yet, for all of the trials and tribulations faced by his white (or whitened) teammates, for all of the real material limitations of life in rural West Texas, they still manage, despite the odds, to come away with something.3

The artifice of camaraderie between the white and black players—not only the moments of locker room banter between Boobie and the three musketeers, but also the unique interracial friendship between Don Billingsley and Ivory Christian (Lee Jackson)—is suggested by the parallel montage of party scenes early in the film: whites party whites while blacks party with blacks. But it is only confirmed during the penultimate confrontation between the coaches of the Permian Panthers and the representatives of Dallas-Carter, the undefeated high school program against which Odessa must do battle in its quest for perfection. In negotiating the site of the championship game, the possibility of the Carter team coming to Permian is ruled out reflexively and vociferously by the opposing coaches. The rationale is clear: Carter’s team, we are reminded, is drawn from an “all-black” community and it is unsubtly understood that such constituency is anathema to the social environs of Odessa (although it is suggested, insidiously, that the problem is generated by the black side of the equation, its irrational dislike of the good people of Permian, and not the historically-grounded segregationist ethos of the white community).

On this score, Boobie finds an interesting counterpart in Coach Carter’s Ty Crane (Sidney Faison), the standout black recruit on an otherwise white basketball team in an otherwise white, private college preparatory school, St. Francis. In fact, Coach Carter’s son, Damien (Robert Ri’chard), is initially enrolled at St. Francis, and would have played a similar role as Crane, though his attendance there would appear to be more organic, Damien having grown up with the tenuous material comforts and cultural capital of the black petit bourgeois. The function of Crane is, then, to both dissimulate the issue of persistent structures of segregation and lend an aura of street credibility to the elite private school rightly coded as white and affluent. But it is his physical talents—and his bodily stature—that connote the formidableness of the program more so than the cumulative economic, political, and social power its students, staff, and faculty mobilize. What this means is that, when the Richmond Oilers find themselves in the midst of a Cinderella season, the final frontier, as in Friday Night Lights, is figured as the body of an imposing young urban black male.

The problem here is that the Oilers themselves occupy the same symbolic position as Crane, one which is identical to that of Dallas-Carter in the narrative economy of Friday Night Lights—the mythical big black enemy—and they cannot recover or obtain the homegrown spiritual substance that Odessa claims for itself against the slick menace of black urban dwellers whose raw strength and bad attitudes betray the illegitimacy of their dominance in the athletic contest and, by extension, in the broader world. The bad black athletes may win the game, but they are a disgrace to the sport and, moreover, they fail to attain—and are likely even unaware—of the higher rewards it offers the true believer. Similarly, they may achieve proximity to political, economic, and social power but they will only ever gain access as interlopers. This is to say that the Richmond Oilers cannot duplicate the accomplishments of the Permian Panthers—beyond any record of wins and losses—and Coach Carter cannot assume the role of Coach Gaines. This is not simply because the tutelage of the former fails utterly to yield the results delivered by the latter (if graduation rates and college attendance at Permian are below average, they are absolutely abysmal at Richmond—quite literally, a 1 on an Academic Performance Index of 1 to 10), but also because the stakes and the significance of athletic and academic performance at these respective schools are marked by a qualitative difference. The stark divergence—young white men from Odessa go off to college or they stay in Odessa and work while young black men from Richmond go off to college or they go to prison or die young—indicates the enduring critical difference that race makes for such social determinations and conditions the functions of schooling for each. More importantly though, even if some unthinkable equity were achievable (in the public educational system, in the criminal justice system, in the whole array of social services and economic opportunities, etc.), the moral value that accrues to the efforts of the Permian Panthers does not translate to the players depicted in Coach Carter.

Political Moralism

“They’re good kids”: an opinion consistently offered about both sets of youth, white and black. But whereas it signals the ultimate consistency between the Panthers and the community of Odessa, in the case of the Oilers the statement is meant to differentiate the team—a dirty dozen—from the rest of their forsaken classmates and desolate neighbors. For black players, the very possibility for moral rectitude (which is a sham in any case, beholden as it is to the morality of a slave society) must be proven against an historically-structured suspicion; for white players, it is simply retrieved—regardless of their poor decisions, mistakes, failures, insecurities—which is to say that it is taken for granted, always already present, inherent even when nowhere apparent, permanently available for rehabilitation.

There is reason to believe that Coach Carter not only understands this bifurcation, but actually embraces it as well. It presents itself in the film as a forced choice, no doubt, but it is still one that could have been refused, that has been refused elsewhere, and is, in fact, refused to this day by others inside and outside the diegetic universe. Or perhaps it is better to say that if the choice itself cannot be refused, it can at least be rephrased. Instead, Carter insists on the transparency and the inevitability of the choice and indeed the film figures most prominently as a story about choice—a choice, as noted, between prison and college; a choice mediated by the universal challenge of discipline, the decisive quality instilled or cultivated by the paternal mentor. (One cannot help but hear a kinder, gentler iteration of Alonzo Harris’s iron-fisted ultimatum in Training Day: “You wanna go home or go to jail?”) The disciplinary project is pursued, symptomatically, through the conservative transposition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s moral example detached entirely from the tradition of civil disobedience and radical political struggle that lends the example its moral weight in the first place. A portrait photograph of King’s deeply contemplative profile hangs prominently above Coach Carter’s desk and the familiar image of the civil rights movement’s central icon is framed in more than one shot parallel to Coach Carter’s visage (Fig. 3.2).
Fig. 3.2

Coach Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) disciplines his players during a practice session in Thomas Carter’s Coach Carter (2005). Image reproduced under terms of fair use

The visual proposition of Carter’s inhabitation of an explicitly political legacy is buttressed by a second dissimulation of black radicalism , one prompted deliberately by Carter’s repeated question to Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez), his most wayward player: “What is your greatest fear?” The question is an open invitation to recite what was thought at the time to be the most memorable lines from the most memorable public address of the most memorable black political leader beyond US borders, namely Nelson Mandela’s 1994 Presidential Inaugural Address following the first “non-racial” elections in the history of the Republic of South Africa:

TIMO: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. […] Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. […] It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

It might seem presumptuous for a high school basketball coach, a small business-owner moonlighting in an essentially volunteer capacity, to make recourse to such grand oratory amid the banalities of halftime pep talks and everyday lectures about hustle and focus. And it might seem gratuitous that MTV films, not known for the intellectual depth or political engagement of its productions, would seize on such incongruous gestures in what is otherwise a formulaic feel-good picture about an underdog that carries the day. As it turns out, Mandela , the Nobel Laureate and former political prisoner, never uttered the words in any public speech, and the inspirational passage was actually drawn from Marianne Williamson’s 1992 A Return to Love. Internet-fueled urban legend was apparently to blame for the gross misattribution, a point that has since been clarified by the African National Congress, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and Williamson herself (McNeff 2012).4 Williamson has been described, rightly or wrongly, as a New Age guru, but her grounding in Helen Schucman’s 1976 A Course in Miracles clearly sets her writing firmly within the self-help genre. And Christian spiritual self-help in particular, as the excised lines from the extended quotation read: “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God… We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us.” This is no liberation theology; this is the cause of an inner spiritual transformation unrelated to any progressive social change. Charitable work and civic engagement are acceptable in this framework, of course, but extra-parliamentary motion and community-based movement-building remain beyond the pale.5 The crucial passage is, then, perhaps fitting after all. Coach Carter is, in this way, hardly more than an unimaginative remake of David Anspaugh’s Hoosiers (1986), walking the tightrope between homage and plagiarism, not only in its comforting story but also in its plot, its mise-en-scène, and its direction as well.

Yet where Hoosiers successfully constructs an aesthetic of renaissance in the conservative bastions of rural Middle America and the ruthlessly conformist “back to basics” vision of Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) can be celebrated by the community of Hickory, Indiana; Coach Carter can function only as a political disservice to the black urban community to which he returns (as a perversion of the fabled prodigal son) and in which he intervenes (as the representative of higher education and private-sector business interests). His neoliberal entrepreneurialism—which brings market philosophy to bear on all aspects of living—is a blatant betrayal of the progressive platforms, radical spirit, and living legacies of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements that resentfully frame the moral force of his onscreen presence and whose animating demands—“freedom, justice, and equality”—continue to circulate confusedly in the common sense of those unprincipled black folks he must assiduously reprimand. Much like Coach Dale in Hoosiers and Coach Gaines in Friday Night Lights, to return to our present comparison, Coach Carter embeds a conservative ideology of individual achievement as the pathway to the players’ rescue within his larger promotion of team spirit. Achievement becomes available to any and all that demonstrate the requisite traits: work ethic, respect for authority, obedience, lawful behavior, and self-discipline. Discipline, as we have seen, is the key issue and its constant repetition across all of the films mentioned thus far is telling. The boys must be brought under control wherever we find them, but it is only in the case of Coach Carter that the force of law—the police, the prison —is a real and present danger, immediate and omnipresent.

In each instance, the coach must reproduce writ small the social contract between himself and his players; an agreement must be forged upfront and in advance. The boys must submit wholly to the terms he establishes, without negotiation. But again, the situation mutates in Richmond. The miniature contract must be written, literalized not spoken (“parole,” we’ll recall, signifies the bond of one’s word), and in this case supersedes the public authority in its minimal requirements—as adjudicated at the level of local governance, however ineffectual—and tightens the reigns of control, now with a self-arrogated authority, an authority grounded in the rights of an un-failed patriarch: formally educated, professionally employed, financially solvent, properly conjugal, dutifully paternal, morally grounded, exceedingly athletic, demonstrably streetwise, physically and mentally tough. It is the latter few qualities, and toughness in particular, that found the reformatory mission. In the identical scenes of first encounter—the coach meets the ragtag group of players—Coach Dale simply eliminates the mouthiest from the team roster, but Coach Carter must physically accost Timo Cruz, slamming him up against the wall like an arresting officer, truly throwing him out, before doing the same. Not so much the power of formal exclusion is exercised (attached to his legal position) as the power of physical confrontation (attached to his brute force). This racially coded and specifically working-class masculinity signifies here as “the best of both worlds”—proletarian and bourgeois—and points toward that which makes Carter the proper object of respect for the young black males he must train. Retaining all of the manly attributes of streetwise youth and combining it, or, better, parlaying it as voucher to college and viable business ventures, Carter avoids the twin pitfalls of a quintessentially black unmanliness—the effete bourgeois bureaucrat, the province of the “new black middle class,” and the futureless lumpen thug, the plight of the black “underclass.” Both are failing the community, as it were, the one by disseminating disastrously low expectations to black students and the other by distracting these same students with the lure of quick money and endangering them with illicit, often deadly forms of labor.

Despite clear evidence that the troubles Carter finds at Richmond High are institutional and ordered unambiguously by broader political, economic, and social contexts, questions of systemic change encouraged by collective political struggle—the sine qua non of his inspirational figures, King and Mandela —are mercilessly crowded out. The situation as such is reified and militancy (which operates diffusely in the “wildness” of his players before being discharged in a patronizing joke against his sister, Linda, who is “radical” and sports “a big Afro”) is countered with sober resignation. Carter declares, in response to the likelihood that his players will be imprisoned rather than graduate high school and attend college: “those are the numbers; those are some statistics for your ass.” On this point, the rhetoric of black “community” thrown about in the film effaces the history and politics of the black “ghetto” and the advent of mass imprisonment over the last generation or two, an effacement marked by the revealing slippage between the narrative of continuity (Carter says that his players face “the same story” in the late 1990s as he and his cohort faced in the early 1970s) and the narrative of discontinuity (Carter says also that “things are different now” by which he means worse) that guides his approach. However, the conclusion, he insists, is not to think critically about how or why things have gotten to this point, much less to act in concert to contest the present state of affairs, but simply to avoid being one of the statistics, that is, to be one of the exceptions.

Father Knows… Nothing

In this dim light, Coach Carter’s is a success story, if by that we mean one featuring negligible impact for short-term labor: the depressed Academic Performance Index (API) at Richmond High is undisturbed, as are the dismal rates of graduation and college attendance; the majority even of his own players during the distinguished season were unable to make good on his advice (two college graduates emerged from a team of fifteen, or a rate of 13 percent) and the basketball program remains a shambles to date.6 (This record might be contrasted with the rise of Carter’s own career as a motivational speaker and multifaceted media personality, including his being the subject of a commercially successful mainstream film.)7 In sum, the players, the school, and the city are left only with “that ever-elusive inner victory.” If this seems an unfair evaluation—what, after all, could one person do in so dire a context?—we can only reply that what is put forward as a heartwarming tale of accomplishment is, in fact, a pernicious defense of depoliticization in a moment of neoconservative ascendance (Fig. 3.3).
Fig. 3.3

Coach Carter explains the need for his players to prioritize academics over athletics. Image reproduced under terms of fair use

It is the particularly destructive form of depoliticization that invests the recovery of black urban communities in the resuscitation of its fathers in the most conventional sense, which is to say as patriarchs. And, in fact, the only way that a black patriarchy could be established would be in and as the form of depoliticization. Through Coach Carter’s eyes we see that the old ways are not working (i.e., the ineptitude of the elder Coach White, played by Mel Winkler); that the women cannot handle the task at hand (i.e., the lassitude of Principal Garrison, played by Denise Dowse); that the male educators are too bookish and overly concerned with their jurisdiction to get the job done (i.e., the wheedling teacher, played by Marcus Woodswelch); and that the strict, young, energetic patriarch must return to assume the mantle, to serve not only as father figure‚ but as father surrogate for a representative sample of a whole generation of fatherless sons.

This is no metaphor, as it is in Friday Night Lights where Coach Gaines is simply fatherly toward his players. There are, in fact, no fathers in Coach Carter—the only direct mention of a player’s father finds him already in prison . There are only mothers and maternal figures and they either provide support (actively or passively, vocally or silently, as cheerleaders, wives, girlfriends or muses) or they present obstacles (irrational attachments to teenage parenthood, sorry excuses for poor administrative leadership, injurious derangements of priorities, or the distractions of sex and drugs). The boys, it seems, have not been spared the interference of women, have not yet been allowed to forge the relationships among themselves that would give them a chance in the world. This is why the consummation of the coaching mission is captured so poignantly in the clichéd image of the pregame team entrance: a small group consisting exclusively of uniformed men, organized around a common goal, passionately attached to both the corporate objective and to one another within the corporate form, a band of brothers, inspired by the motto: “all for one and one for all.” Most importantly, the fates of women and girls in both films are settled in advance: the question of their transcendence, literal or figurative, of debilitating local conditions is strictly precluded. However, it is not simply unfortunate that these entirely incommensurable appeals—on the one hand, to the revival of pastoral virtue, coded racially white, against the predations of modern urban life, coded racially black, and, on the other, to the ameliorative effects of redoubled educational efforts, coded racially black, against the predations of gross and concentrated material inequality, coded, again, racially black—take the form of such politically regressive characterizations of women and men, and, along the way, analogize the sports arena to the battlefield, the team to the fraternal military unit. The sporting enterprise, not unlike professional policing , is a paramilitary undertaking.

Rather, we encounter here most acutely the dramatic limitations of any recuperation of patriarchal deliverance for “black strivings in a twilight civilization” (Gates and West 1996) and not only owing to serious problems inherent to commandeering the bravado of street culture for upward mobility qua athletic accomplishment, academic excellence, and professional success. Something similar can be said, ultimately, for the material fortunes of the white rural working class as well; however, the symbolic order of white supremacy, its libidinal economy, makes possible an effective imaginative capture yielding significant dividends for whites, even those of humble means, while the economies—symbolic and material—of antiblackness preclude the alliances necessary for such a project to become anything more than a reactionary dream quarantined in and as internecine warfare, on scales large and small, in spaces public and private. The anachronistic strongman—whose mettle is tested repeatedly, often by misguided and unreasonably demanding women or by desperate, emasculated men—betrays the rightward lean of the entire ensemble of questions pursued by this cinema of sport, the whole range of its machinations. This is why we are well served to think of the cinema of sport as a cinema of policing in the broader sense.

We have long struggled with the mythology, noted above, that the salvation of black communities lies with black men’s arrival within, rather than their struggle against or departure from, dominant formations of gender and sexuality and their concomitant ascension to, rather than their struggle against, the middle and upper classes. Coach Carter participates in this cinematic “politics of respectability” with a vengeance (White 2001). Not only for the ways it systematically writes off the mass of black youth as the statistical casualties of urban life, or even its unconcealed recasting of progressive political movements as personal aggrandizement. Not only for its single-minded meditation on the welfare of men and boys, its clear relegation of female gender to the margins of narrative movement, sequestered to spectacle and sideshow, the non-viable options of support or obstruction for male fortunes. But also, a point that might be made more often, because it sells a lie even, perhaps especially, to those young black men whose identification it solicits in such evident bad faith. For the uniformed black male—here in the sports arena, other times among the troops or behind the “thin blue line”—the game is rigged against him (Wilderson 2010) (Fig. 3.4).
Fig. 3.4

The Richmond Oilers walk out of the locker room together to face their cross-town rivals. Image reproduced under terms of fair use

This last point is made plainly in the closing scenes of the film, following the buzzer-beater defeat of the Richmond Oilers by their well-heeled cross-town rivals. Coach Carter offers what is meant to be a capstone speech, but that comes across as a warmed-over collection of platitudes: “I came here to coach basketball players and you became students. I came here to work with boys and you became men.” Interesting, at one level, that manhood is here aligned with academic engagement—interesting, that is, because the men in question are black—but it should not escape attention that the sort of schoolwork promoted by Carter is instrumental, almost perfunctory. Neither critical intellectual activity, nor even the mind-numbing “basic skills training” celebrated by earlier “blackboard jungle” films like John Avildsen’s Lean On Me (1989) or John Smith’s Dangerous Minds (1995), but rather the minimal grade point average and test scores necessary to gain college entrance and, hopefully, win athletic scholarship funding. In short, the young men of Richmond High—halfway across the country, a decade later—are pushed to pursue the pipe dream of Boobie Miles, the dream, perhaps, of their sports nemesis, Ty Crane , as well. What is being asked of them, in other words, is that they put forth extraordinary efforts to accomplish what are considered from the dominant vantage to be below-average results and, most importantly, to take pride in so doing, to believe themselves role models, paragons of self-determination, beacons of hope for the entire community, a hope that the community can rid itself of its despair and control its pathological manifestations in the meanwhile.8 They offer proof positive that no systemic change, no fundamental social transformation is necessary, that the American Dream is alive and well in the places least likely to nourish it.

The Big and the Small

No such fallacy is propagated among the white players of rural Texas in Friday Night Lights or among their predecessors from rural Indiana in Hoosiers . Surely, high school sports stars are shown to be inspirations to young children and sources of vicarious triumph for local residents as well.9 But they are not saddled with the additional symbolic freight of substantiating the viability of the communities from which they hail; they are not held up as the territory upon which the intrinsic value of such communities is arbitrated, as is the case in Coach Carter. Quite the contrary, the threat to human viability in these instances is located externally, as an impingement or encroachment. The operative question is thus: Can the community muster the collective resolve to hold the line or turn the tide? This, then, is the crux: the overriding forces, however complexly their evocation, are marked most crudely and most prominently by the signs of racial blackness.

In Hoosiers , the “big city” is not only the mailing address of the favored team in the state championship basketball tournament, but also the center of the state’s governance and its most vital economic activity. It is the place where the perpetual doldrums of rural life are diluted in the urban solution of historical change (what the students in the film innocently discuss as “modernization”), where learning moves beyond the vocational toward broader horizons, the hub of possibility in the postwar dawn of the American Century. It is the place where the strictures of parochialism are thrown off, but also where the endearing values of increasingly isolated small-town life (paradoxically: familiarity and privacy, austerity and security, insularity and wholesomeness, frustration and fulfillment) are corrupted. However, we never see the figures of “big government” and “big business,” the movers and shakers of modern industrial society, the ruling class of the state of Indiana or even the decadent middle class of the city of Indianapolis, to say nothing of national or international developments of the time. Rather, what we see, in the film’s climatic sequence, is an awesomely capacious sports arena (the 15,000-seat Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University) peopled by a black coaching staff, black cheerleaders, black fans, and a team of black players, most especially their indomitable standout guard: the first and last appearance of black characters in the film and all without speaking parts.

This formula is repeated with little modification in Friday Night Lights. Though there are numerous references to economic decline in Odessa, accompanied by the recurrent image-motif of unattended oil pumps, we never encounter onscreen the politicos of Austin or the corporate elite of Dallas. There is, moreover, no discussion of the means by which economic restructuring, or even political disempowerment, has unfolded throughout the state, or beyond. What we do see, at the emotional crescendo of the film’s narrative development, is an overwhelmingly capacious sports arena (the 60,000-seat Houston Astrodome—just before it served as a notorious makeshift shelter for the displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005), peopled by a black coaching staff, black cheerleaders, black fans, and a team of undifferentiated black players; a team whose most notable quality is their size: “they’re big” is repeated nearly a dozen times throughout the film before and during the championship contest, as is its correlate, “we’re small.” In fact, this physical disparity is the frame of the film’s famous story, its source of dramatic tension, and size matters here on any number of levels. The black players from Dallas-Carter are other things as well: inhumanly fast, characteristically rude, prone to cheap shots and, unsurprisingly given the earlier portrayal of their head coach, “racist” as well. The sole indication of racist slur and one of the few pointed comments regarding racial difference in the entire script—for a film, recall, based in a predominantly-white community in West Texas in the late 1980s—is issued by a black player against one of the few non-white Permian Panthers: Chavez is taunted, mildly, as “Mexican” (Fig. 3.5).10
Fig. 3.5

The Permian Panthers line up against Dallas-Carter in the championship game. Image reproduced under terms of fair use


White players defeat their black opponents in these two films, regardless of whether they win the contest. The moral victory is the coveted prize11—not, to repeat, because blacks could or should claim as much in relation to whites (a moral victory over what? There is, after all, no trace of white racism!), but because the white community as such is in desperate need of this test of character; a call to arms perhaps, a revival at the very least. The new black menace that everywhere personifies the troubles of contemporary white rural and suburban life in this post-civil rights image archive enjoys a public reputation as insuperable. We encounter, on this score, white communities in a weakened state, demoralized, stagnant, wrestling with doubt, seeking again—and finding—the will to believe. The marriage of this unhappy white rural community and the wandering, crestfallen white man, back from the urban wilds, that will lead it to greatness marks the reunion or, better, regrouping of an erstwhile imagined community now scattered and fragmented (Lipsitz 1998).

It is appropriate, then, that so quintessential a story from the Reagan–Bush era would return with success in the cultural milieu of Bush II, a pat adjunct to the resurrection of so many personnel from the former administration in the apparatus of the latter, a resurgence of its gloves-off schema to reorganize the globe, and its flirtation with the mobilizing thematic of race war (we see, in hindsight, that Clinton’s neoliberalism truly authorized the panoply of racist code words in official political nomenclature and rendered them illegible as such) (Chomsky 2003; Mahajan 2003). Indeed, if we are to entertain or be entertained by the force of Friday Night Lights and consider Coach Carter to be its “other side of the tracks” equivalent as the critical establishment has done, it would appear that the struggle against this dark and dangerous figure of black masculinity is something that whites and blacks have in common.

This is why Coach Carter is by far the more disturbing film. In the history of Hollywood productions, it is at least anticipated—though no less injurious—that populist films about the redemption of the white American heartland deploy images of threatening blacks (Bernardi 2001; Vera & Gordon 2003). Yet, increasingly, we see that equally successful, nominally black films—written and directed by blacks, featuring mostly black casts, and/or aimed at a black or “blackened” youth audience—envision the revitalization of a putative black community through the same gambit: there is a hulking black male adversary in the distance and conflict is in the offing. The pain of this alienating identification—which black audiences today may enjoy widely nonetheless—is only compounded by the collapse of the critical boundary: the outside falls back inside; the trouble out there becomes suffocating and close; it is, in fact, internal and, moreover, intimate, inescapable and, ultimately, irrefutable. It is un-opposable. That black specter is me. I am that thing.


  1. 1.

    See Steve James’s 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, which follows the lives of two young black men, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who hope to turn successful high school basketball careers into high-paying professional contracts in the National Basketball Association (Gilbert and Marx 1994). It is also worth adding that the following discussion of the black-white racial dynamics of the two films is complicated, but not contradicted, by the demographic changes that have taken place in both locales over the last generation: Odessa, Texas and Richmond, California today have, according to 2010 census data, a clear Latino majority (51%) and plurality (40%), respectively.

  2. 2.

    This racial bifurcation may account, in part, for the extended success of the Friday Night Lights franchise. Following the various runs of the film adaptation, a television series was developed by writer/director/producer Peter Berg. That series ran for five seasons (2006–2011) and garnered various critical plaudits, including a Peabody Award, a Humanitas Prize, and several Primetime Emmys.

  3. 3.

    This depressing point was underscored dramatically by the release of the 25th anniversary edition of Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights in 2015. The three musketeers returned on this occasion to the Permian Panthers football field to reflect on their lives at middle age. While their stories are humble and there are pangs of nostalgia in their reflections upon high school greatness, it is suggested that they have each done well enough for themselves in the interim. Mike Winchell attended a local college and holds a stable career in the oil industry. He’s a bachelor living in a small town outside Dallas near his extended family. Brian Chavez graduated from Harvard and took a law degree from Texas Tech. After practicing criminal law for years back in Odessa, he branched out into various small businesses and he now lives with his fiancé not far from his childhood home. Jerrod McDougal owns an excavation and construction company outside San Antonio. He’s had his share of personal losses, including his younger brother to a car accident, and he lives alone after an engagement to be married fell through, but he’s managed to keep his life together despite the tribulations. Boobie Miles, by contrast, is doing a ten-year prison term in the Mark Stiles Unit near Beaumont, following a parole violation. His legal troubles have been relatively minor but consistent enough to disrupt most of his adult life. He worked a series of menial jobs, struggled financially, and eventually lost custody of his children to his former girlfriend some years ago. He’s become morbidly obese and battles a range of mental health issues (Bissinger 2015).

  4. 4.

    McNeff is the co-founder and president since 1978 of the Miracle Distribution Center, an educational nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the study and dissemination of A Course in Miracles. In an earlier version of this chapter, I also unwittingly reproduced the urban legend that linked Williamson’s passage to Mandela’s inauguration, so I am happy to correct that mistake here.

  5. 5.

    Williamson, a noted Los Angeles philanthropist, is also founder of Project Angel Food, a meals-on-wheels program for people living with life-threatening illnesses, and The Peace Alliance, a national policy initiative promoting non-violent conflict resolution. Her work has been celebrated by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Rose, and Bill Maher, and she was recognized by Newsweek magazine as one of the fifty most influential Baby Boomers. She has sold over three million copies of her various books to date (Aron 2014). For a critical discussion of Schucman’s magnum opus in the broad context of Western esotericism, see Hanegraaff (1996).

  6. 6.

    Richmond High School has continued to struggle academically by every standard measure since Coach Carter’s departure in 2002. The only major change has been to the demographics of the student body. Whereas the school served, through the 1990s, predominantly black students in the vicinity, it is now over 80% Latino and black students represent less than 10% as of this writing. This shift is part of a much larger trend, especially in California, of displacement and depopulation in historically black neighborhoods, a complex process of gentrification in which low-income Latinos and Asians often pave the way for the arrival of more affluent middle and upper class white residents to return to previously avoided black ghettos (Hwang 2016). This gentrification is strongly correlated with a re-segregation of public schools nationally (Brown 2016).

  7. 7.

    Carter has, since his tenure at Richmond High School, served as the coach of the Los Angeles Rumble, one of six teams in the international SlamBall League. SlamBall is a form of novelty basketball played on trampolines while wearing protective gear. Slam Dunks are the eponymous means of scoring.

  8. 8.

    Gordon (1997) speaks volumes about this perverse imperative. The black in the antiblack world, he maintains, is required to commit extraordinary efforts to the achievement of ordinary existence, while the latter is perpetually harassed, if not altogether foreclosed.

  9. 9.

    Here the stars are all men, but there will be increasing numbers of Hollywood women’s sports films like Karyn Kusama’s Girl Fight (2000), John Stockwell’s Blue Crush (2002), Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), and Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009); women’s police films like Joel Coen’s Fargo (1996), Donald Petrie’s Miss Congeniality (2000), Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001), Gregory Hoblit’s Untraceable (2008), and Paul Feig’s The Heat (2013); and women’s military films like Edward Zwick’s Courage Under Fire (1996), Ridley Scott’s GI Jane (1997), Rob Cohen’s Stealth (2005), and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012); none of which will necessarily challenge generic conventions or offer visions of women or womanhood beyond that of, say, the Feminist Majority or the Democratic Party.

  10. 10.

    There is an important elision here, as well, about Anglo-Latino conflict in and beyond Texas, one that not only obscures dimensions of the history of white supremacy and US imperialism, but also solicits—not least in the bond of the three musketeers—a racialized solidarity, against blacks, between white Anglos and their non-black Latino counterparts (Yancey 2003; Foley 2010).

  11. 11.

    The moral victory, the reconsolidation of character becomes the primary focus, whereas the winning determined by the scoreboard operates as a byproduct of the more important development of self. The loss of the championship in Friday Night Lights is important, however, insofar as the moral victory is underscored by the loss of the brass ring. The fact that the featured team in Hoosiers actually wins might be taken as a sign of the times, both the Pax Americana of the 1950s (in which it is set) and the conservative restoration of the 1980s (in which it was released). The Permian Panther’s loss seems more resonant with the contemporary period, well after the end of the short American Century, the era of diminished returns, the beleaguered post-9/11 USA, a nation that can suffer a traumatic loss and keep moving. We should note that, Friday Night Lights forecasts the win next season, the gathering storm on the horizon of the New American Century. Coach Carter, on the other hand, holds out no such promise.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of African American StudiesUniversity of California, IrvineIrvineUSA

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