Glory Road is obviously a valuable motion picture in a couple of respects. In recounting the rise of the first all-black college basketball team, it sheds light on an important historical artifact, and in confronting the tumultuous (to say the least) relationship between white and black Americans in the 1960s, it has a lot to say about that racial divide. In one corner, the white players on the basketball team in question, born into privilege, receive a lot of flak for being welcoming of the African-American players hired onto the team. In the other corner, those black players, born into prejudice, are targeted for the color of their skin daily.
That fundamental difference is explored in exactly one scene in the film, which is otherwise concerned with the facts about the team itself, framing their story as one about the coach who had the audacity, in 1966 and in Texas, to hire black players out of high schools. One gets the idea, though, that the coach isn't the most interesting or important part of this story. Yes, Don Haskins had a certain audacity, especially given the pushback by the administration at the Texas Western College of the University of Texas (now known as the University of Texas at El Paso), who hired him despite his only previous occupation of coaching girls' basketball.
It was the students, though, whose determination is more notable. Despite racism from all sides - both quiet (empty or judgmental stares from white passersby) and loud (A player is attacked in a bathroom, and one of the hotel rooms in which they stay while on the road is trashed and graffitied with racial slurs) - these young men persevered to become NCAA champions. The screenplay (by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois) is more concerned with simplifying the racial struggles of the team to dime-store anecdotes, and director James Gartner only seems to come alive in his cobwebbed filmmaking during the scenes of basketball-playing (which, of course, come in montages).
Thus, the players on the team - including Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), Jerry Armstrong (Austin Nichols), Nevil Shed (Al Shearer), and several others, plus a few white players who are essentially interchangeable - feel like not much more than vessels for the film's message-making, and Haskins himself, played in the film by Josh Lucas, gets the job of reacting to the obtuse racism of his fellows with increasing disbelief when he isn't giving big speeches and Big Speeches. Everything ultimately pivots upon a Big Game against an undefeated team, coached by Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight), that will secure the Texas Western Miners in sports history.
It isn't enough that the film confronts the institutional racism of the educational scene of the mid-1960s, either, though the screenwriters make a great effort to address it in every line of dialogue given to the characters. We are only allowed a sense of the impact of that prejudice in a vague and indecisive way because so much of the film hinges on the telling of its true story. Roger Ebert said that a film isn't about what it's about but how it's about it, and Glory Road settles for the simple fact of the story it is telling. Little here means much beyond a superficial biographical account, and that's a shame.
Josh Lucas (Don Haskins), Derek Luke (Bobby Joe Hill), Jon Voight (Adolph Rupp), Austin Nichols (Jerry Armstrong), Evan Jones (Moe Iba), Mehcad Brooks (Harry Fluornoy), Damaine Radcliff (Willie "Scoops" Cager).
Directed by James Gartner and written by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois.
Rated PG (racial issues including violence/epithets, momentary language).
Released on January 13, 2006.