This year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature seems almost too good to be true…but that’s what makes it so effective. Directed, photographed and edited by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, it profiles a most unusual fellow: Bill Courtney, a volunteer football coach for a Memphis high school that most people have given up on. The fact that he is white and his players are black is barely mentioned, which has bothered some observers. I think what matters is what we can see with our own eyes: this man loves and supports his players unconditionally, and they in turn respect him and his dedication to their team.
I’m not a sports fan, but Undefeated is less about football than it is about leadership and motivation. It dramatically illustrates how one person—even someone who isn’t a teacher, and has no professional training as a counselor or an athlete—can make a difference in the lives of young people. The filmmakers also reveal just how much Courtney sacrifices by not spending an equivalent amount of time with his own family.
We never know what documentarians choose not to show us, but clearly Lindsay and Martin earned the trust of coach Bill Courtney and his team, because we are allowed to witness intimate scenes and encounters on and off the field. There are moments that move Courtney
and some of his boys to tears, and it’s hard not to respond in kind.
Undefeated is an inspiring portrait that deserves to find a wide audience. It might even stimulate some viewers to focus on young people as this coach has done, with rather remarkable results.