Even those unfamiliar with real-life high school basketball coach Ken Carter might find familiar elements in the inspirational drama based on his achievements. After all, how many different ways can you tell the story of a coach who inherits a team torn apart and transforms them from chaotic underachievers to state title contenders?
Except in this case, the events actually happened. Coach Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) benched his undefeated Richmond Oilers in 1999 because the team failed to meet academic requirements he established at the start of the season. Amid protests from both school faculty and area parents, Carter locked his players out of the gymnasium and drove them into the library until their grades were up to snuff.
In the age of off-the-court brawls and criminal accusations aimed at NBA superstars, it’s refreshing to find a role model from the basketball realm who defines the student-athlete by emphasizing the first word instead of the second. Hollywood’s efforts to relay Carter’s story are noble but contrived, bowing to meet clichéd storytelling requirements that ultimately prevent Coach Carter from joining Hoosiers and Teen Wolf in the upper echelons of basketball pictures.
The film, from director Thomas Carter (no relation), utilizes an alternating formula of motivational speeches and current hip-hop tracks meant to sell Coach Carter soundtracks. Screenwriters Mark Schwahn and John Gatins intertwine street slang (“He clowned you, dog”) with bite-sized nuggets of inspirational wisdom (“Winning in here is the key to winning out there”).
Carter picks apart key issues, from the overabundance of on-court trash talk to teenagers’ casual use of the “N” word. These players meet tougher opposition outside the gym, where drug pushers, short-sighted faculty members, and pregnant girlfriends present genuine obstacles to their promising futures.
Employing the same tough love methods that got Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight in trouble years ago, Coach Carter walks a thin line that adds necessary dramatic weight. Carter knows he has to push these young men toward self-improvement, but push them too hard and their futures potentially suffer. One valuable scene shows a mother begging the coach to play her benched son so he can impress college scouts and possibly earn a scholarship. She acknowledges her son’s faults and commends the coach for instilling respect in her boy. But the reality of the situation is that now is not a convenient time to teach this lesson, and Carter makes that point clear.
When Carter works, it’s because of Jackson. Steadfast, stubborn, and wise, Jackson blends intimidation with a hint of malicious encouragement that adequately back up the coach’s repeated threats to get his team in line. Few deliver hard doses of reality better than Sam when he’s dialed into a character’s intensity.
For every relevant point, the film makes an equally artificial decision to satisfy the screenwriting hack in all of us. An unwanted pregnancy plaguing one player’s girlfriend conveniently goes away. The Oilers enter an unlikely rematch with a private-school squad that humiliated them at the movie’s start.
At the heart of Carter lies this imbalanced school system that routinely puts athletics before education. Teachers express anger because Carter’s actions call attention to their ineptitude, making them look lazy and stupid. Parents are angered that their athletically gifted children can not perform in front of college scouts, but care little about the parade of poor grades. Unfortunately, Carter points out the deficiencies but stops short of offering real solutions (though not due to lack of time; the movie runs long at 134 minutes).
In hoop terms, Coach Carter would win the NIT, but it fails to receive an invitation to compete in March Madness.