If you haven’t noticed from the increase in beer, online gaming, and ESPN workplace commercials, it’s Football Season! For socially conscious football lovers, this kickoff can reap a concoction of emotions more complex than a Belichick offensive play. Last year’s NFL and NCAA football seasons were impacted and often dampened by issues of off and on field violence affecting players or victims of players, as well as freedom of expression.
Football films focus on a variety of issues as well, but one in particular that warranted re-viewing in the current climate of racial tension was Disney’s Remember the Titans which explores high school football at the time of school integration in the 60’s. Even at the onset, this perhaps seems like a topic too heavy for Disney to handle. However, Titans has some success in exploring racism, initially because of how it treats its characters. There is some Disney-fying of the story, to be sure, and yet the film actually allows its characters to delve into some of the more complicated issues surrounding racism. However, whether or not that makes the film a successful portrayal of its issues, is a complex question that ultimately must be answered beyond what is shown on screen.
If anything, the film’s initial portrayal of racial tension is interesting, because it begins from the perspective of characters who are harboring racism, not victimized by it. The story initially depicts some very familiar-looking riots prompted by the shooting of a young African American man. At once, it’s disheartening to see how very close society still is to that point in time, and also disconcerting to watch how the film’s future protagonists like Gerry Bertier respond to those riots. It’s a credit to the film that his character and others respond with blatant racism at this point in the story.
Later, when these white characters begin to transform, their change is not really attributed to the “goodness” of their hearts, but to their interaction with the film’s African American characters, who steadfastly refuse to accept racist treatment. For example, when the character of coach Herman Boone is encouraged to respond with a more gentle understanding to the racism he faces, he resolutely indicates that he “will not be intimidated,” implying that he refuses to accommodate racist behavior that should not be tolerated at all. Similarly, when African American Julius Campbell is accused by white teammate Gerry Bertier of having a “bad attitude,” he attributes his attitude to the racism he faces and his unwillingness to accept it, stating that his “attitude reflects [a] leadership” which demands change in how he and his African American teammates are treated.
Furthermore, Titans is willing to suggest that despite the white members of the team that eventually begin to evolve beyond their racism, societal racism still persists. The African American members of the Titans even express anger that their white colleagues cannot recognize the institutionalized racism they face. Despite the promise of the individual growth of their white teammates, society will not change overnight just because of these individual choices.
The most Disney-fying aspect on screen perhaps lies in the hope that the Titans promises, implying that the strength the Titans team displayed in overcoming the racism of their circumstances will spread. This is an optimism that some might accept. After all, it is a realistic notion that the racism passed down from generation to generation can change when it stops with a new generation. If the most Disney-fied part of Titans is that it pits the hope for ending a problem like racism in the promise of youth, then perhaps that isn’t so bad. Sure, the film skims over the political institutionalization of racism, but for individual growth, the message is an acceptable one.
If a viewer were to accept the inspiring message Titans offers, then that viewer might also wish to know the “real story” that Titans insists it is telling. Unfortunately, it should be no surprise that with a quick search, a viewer would quickly learn the misrepresentations made by the film. This unveiling may make a viewer wish Titans was just a blatant fairy tale, rather than something that Disney purports to be truth. If Titans had merely attempted to tell a highly optimistic story about race relations in football, then viewers may have been left simply enjoying the positives in the film. However, by basing its story in a very specific reality, Titans makes that reality very unreal when it erases facts, and glamorizes its main character.
In many ways, the challenge of viewing Titans is the challenge of watching and loving football. There’s a case to be made for the positives. Even beyond the thrills of a touchdown, sack, or blocked field goal (more please!!), football stories can be about overcoming harsh odds or the joy of a team’s support for one another. Similarly, Titans has positives that are hard not to appreciate: individuals can evolve past racism in the right circumstances, and it’s just plain harsh to dismiss the beauty of the Bertier/Campbell friendship or the way the Titans team learns to appreciate the strength they find in each other and themselves by the film’s conclusion. Yet these positives will always exist underneath the shadow of the truth. Behind every sack is a potential injury, and behind every glorified athlete is the potential excusing of that athlete’s behavior merely because of his or her celebrity status. Because as Titans exemplifies, behind every Disney-fied story, is a more complex narrative that Disney felt was just too tricky or controversial to share; a narrative that couldn’t be wrapped up with the happy ending that made everyone leave the theater feeling like they had won just by watching. In reality, winning requires a full exploration of the truth, and an acknowledgement of the real effort it takes to strive toward social justice for all.