PRIDE (Sunu Gonera, 2007)
Employed to clean up the Marcus Foster Recreation Center for impending closure, Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) also puts a sparkle in the eyes of the surrounding community in PRIDE. When Jim arrives in the north Philadelphia neighborhood in 1974, the center is a crumbling facility in which resident and maintenance man Elston (Bernie Mac) has more interest in monitoring his stories on TV than the building's infrastructure. Area boys play on the blacktop basketball court, but otherwise the place is for criminal rather than physical activity.
When a city worker removes the basketball hoop, Jim invites the boys inside for swimming. Intent to stop their clowning in the water, he accepts a bet from the most outspoken of the group. A former swimmer for Cheyney State, he has no problem winning the twenty dollars and their respect.
Five boys decide that they would like to learn how to swim like him. Jim patiently instructs them in the proper techniques and team discipline, but two questions must be resolved if his work is to have any value. Will his instilled lessons take root, and will Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise), a city councilwoman and one of the boys' legal guardians, be able to keep the Philadelphia Department of Recreation from shuttering the center's doors?
PRIDE is the latest in an endless supply of motivational sports movies inspired by true stories. Recent examples of this tried and true formula include WE ARE MARSHALL, INVINCIBLE, and GRIDIRON GANG. Take an unlikely underdog or a group of them, and follow the steps as they persevere against all odds. Separating PRIDE from the pack is its focus on swimming. When was the last time an aquatic sport received its own movie? The film imparts some basic knowledge about what Jim teaches these kids, but the real lessons are in pride, determination, and resiliency, not swimming mechanics.
On that level the film works. As the boys overcome the adversity of their circumstances and develop respect for themselves and those around them, it's easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moments. Movie studios return to this well so many times because it's hard to resist stories of the unlikely heroes coming out on top.
Where PRIDE falters is in creating memorable characters. For all intents and purposes, the swim team might as well be The One with the Glasses, The One Protective of His Afro, The Stutterer, The One with the Sister, The One Destined to be Leader, and The Girl. The team consists of character types, not well-rounded individuals.
The same extends to Howard's protagonist. Jim rolls into Philly looking for a teaching job at Main Line Academy but can do no better than doing janitor work at PDR. He's like a magical mentor who appears out of the ether to improve lives. Seriously. Beyond what we learn in the pre-opening credits sequence, in which Jim suffers the humiliation of racism at a college swim meet in 1964, what else do we know about the guy? He inspires the kids, sure, but there has to be something interesting about the real person that could have beefed up his lightweight screen persona.
Nevertheless, PRIDE rises with its feel-good message, soul classics of the 70s on the soundtrack, and Bernie Mac's comic relief. The film isn't a champion, but it makes you feel like one.