Terrence Howard, Bernie Mac, Kimberly Elise, Tom Arnold
Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard
Diving into his role as real life Philadelphia swimming coach Jim Ellis, Terrence Howard offers further proof that he can offer a multi-layered, complex performance even given the most mediocre of material and stock characters known to contemporary cinema.
While Howard is his usual magnificent self, "Pride" itself barely makes a splash in what feels like the umpteenth recent inspirational, real life sports story to hit screens in the past year.
From "Glory Road" to "Facing the Giants" to Ellis' fictional neighbor "Rocky," "Pride" is one of those films that is nearly impossible to hate even while you're sitting there watching it and thinking "Haven't I seen this somewhere before?"
Yes, we've all seen this somewhere before.
Yet, despite the film's familiarity and all too predictable resolution, "Pride" is, dare I say it, an entertaining and often inspiring film. The film starts off with Ellis as a young high school swimmer who, when he gets heckled out of a 1964 North Carolina swim tournament ends up assaulting a cop.
This impulsive indiscretion seems to be the primary reasoning behind the difficulty Ellis has when, years later and post-college, he has difficulty finding a job despite initially receiving an offer from Mainline Academy, a snooty, largely white institution headed by a subtly racist "Bink" (Tom Arnold).
Ellis ends up desperately taking a job with the Philadelphia Department of Recreation shutting down one of its inner city recreation centers that has fallen into disrepair and is now supervised only by a head of maintenance (Bernie Mac) and utilized only by a group of neighborhood boys who play basketball nearly every single day on its worn-out, torn up playground in the shadow of the local drug dealer (Gary Sturgis).
With his first feature film, Sunu Gonera shows both his experience and potential directing off the script by first time screenwriters Kevin Michael Smith and Michael Gozzard.
Howard has always had a knack for not just finding the deepest motivations within his characters, but for intimately sharing such motivations with his audiences. Howard's take on Ellis, who continues coaching swimming in Philadelphia after 33 years and numerous Olympic hopefuls, is one of Pride, Determination and Resilience, a fact brought vividly to life by the film's team name, PDR (which also stands for Philadelphia Department of Recreation).
While "Pride" occasionally dips into the kind of conflict that normally finds itself resolved within the confines of a 30-minute television sitcom (more than once I thought of "Good Times" while watching "Pride"), Gonera also gives "Pride" a refreshingly sincere, sweet and innocent feeling that doesn't depend upon artificial sweeteners, trumped up histrionics or unnecessary conflicts.
The young men here, Hakim (Nate Parker), Walt (Alphonso McAuley), Andre (Kevin Phillips), Puddin' Head (Brandon Fobbs) and Reggie (Evan Ross) along with a lone girl swimmer (Regine Nehy) are true friends without the forced peaks and valleys that often accompany such films with the mild, yet believable conflict between the local drug dealer and Walt. The action here feels a bit like "ATL," another flawed yet appealing film that gives a balanced, spirited and dignified glimpse inside inner-city life for the African-American community.
Despite the film's obvious humanity and heartfelt message, much of "Pride" doesn't make sense to the point of distraction.
For example, if Bink and MainLine Academy are racist to the point of completing dismissing Ellis's employment solely on the basis of race, how does Ellis suddenly manage to get Mainline to agree to host PDR in their first meet?
Likewise, when PDR gets serious and decides to host Mainline in a meet in their "house" at the Foster Recreation Center how believable is it that these obviously racist, self-centered and long-standing champion swimmers are really going to go all the way into a ghetto recreation center?
For that matter, how is it that an inner-city recreation center that is in massive disrepair and destined for closure somehow has a completely functional and spotless pool despite the fact that the local councilwoman (Kimberly Elise) has just acknowledged that it has been months since the center brought in any money, youth or resources?
Wait, there's more.
Okay, Okay. I accept that a girl could, technically, be on the boy's swim team in local meets. Rules, after all, aren't that clear and this was Philly in the 1970's. Yet, by the time PDR begins to experience success AND this girl starts winning meets I have a hard time believing not a single protest ever occurs? Not once?
Even the altercation between the drug dealer and Ellis doesn't quite gel into a cohesive, convincing scene. The drug dealer's actions are tame by drug dealer standards and Ellis' response, for which he suspends himself, is unnecessarily brutal in a film that feels remarkably free-spirited much of the time.
Despite its obvious structural flaws, "Pride" still manages to work much of the time largely due to Howard's authentic performance, Mac's wonderfully understated performance and the chemistry between the young men who comprise the swim team. In particular, Evan Ross ("ATL" and "Life Support") shines as Reggie, a young man with a notable stutter and lack of self-confidence who becomes the heart and soul of PDR. G
The other supporting roles, including Gary Sturgis, Tom Arnold and Kimberly Elise, are a bit too underdeveloped to leave a lasting impression. Clint Eastwood's youngest son, Scott Reeves, shows up briefly as a rival swimmer, but generally the opposing swimmers are nothing more than unfriendly faces in the pool.
The film's production design is generally solid and indicative of the times, though the cinematography all too often feels "artistic" more than "authentic" and, in particular, the closing scene of the final race is done in a jarringly slo-mo fashion that completely destroys the climactic nature of the race.
It is easy to understand why Howard signed on as an executive producer for "Pride." Howard seems to pride himself on portraying characters with both a deep sense of flawed humanity and a redemptive quality that is too often missing in today's African-American films. While many would look at Ellis and the Foster Recreation Center and see ghetto, Howard clearly sees the crystal cathedral shining through.
With pride, determination and resilience, Terence Howard offers up yet another heartfelt performance as Jim Ellis, a man whose dedication to excellence has improved the lives of hundreds of young Philly men and women in the past 33 years. Despite its obvious flaws, "Pride" is a film your family really should see.
- Richard Propes
The Independent Critic