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Sports | Carter High football team takes to the big screen

Writer/director Arthur Muhammad talks race, second chances

Sports movies: the lifeblood of the American psyche. There is nothing quite like how the hard work, personal dramas, and dedication of young athletes move us to tears and make us want to be better people. Sports movies play an important role in documenting cultural values surrounding athletics, and in highlighting the stories that will be remembered for generations to come.

But the new sports movie Carter High, aside from bringing to life the epic story of the rise and fall of one of the best high school football teams in history, is different from most well-known sports movies, which raises troubling questions about Hollywood’s portrayal of sports teams. Almost sixty years after the first Black NFL player played his first game, after decades of Black high school football teams, Carter High is the first major movie whose narrative focuses completely on Black athletes and their experiences, without warping their stories to comply with a white narrative, such as in “white saviour” type stories like The Blind Side.

“I think that this story is a good story regardless, Black or white, but [Hollywood] chose not to do it and said they couldn’t do it because it was a Black film.”

 

The film is set in Dallas, 1988: the site of one of the biggest controversies in football history. The famed David W. Carter High School football team took home the Texas state championship after a tumultuous year of being pulled in and out of the league over questions of one player’s eligibility due to a possible failing grade. The story culminated in 1991, when it was revealed that members of the team had been part of a series of robberies, and the team was stripped of its title.

The other side of this story came to life on screen in Friday Night Lights, a movie about the Dallas team who lost to Carter High at the final game of the state championships. However, this film has been criticized for stereotyping the Carter players, inaccurately depicting them as low-income when, in reality, the students were from middle-class, suburban households, and for suggesting the team “played dirty” when the team was in fact highly respected.

But now, almost thirty years later, Carter High’s story is about to be told on the big screen. Arthur Muhammad, who played on the 1988 team, wrote and directed Carter High, which is scheduled for release in theaters on October 30 in the U.S.. Former Dallas Cowboys player Greg Ellis is the film’s executive producer, and the cast includes Vivica A. Fox, Pooch Hall, and Charles S. Dutton as Coach James, the inspirational leader of the team. The Daily spoke with Muhammad, for whom the production of this film was extremely personal.

The McGill Daily (MD): Why did you decide to tell the story of Carter High?

Arthur Muhammad (AM): Carter was always a story that I wanted to tell. It’s a first-hand account kind of thing. I was actually a junior that particular year, so I interviewed Coach James, who was the head coach, I talked to all of the players that [were] involved [and I had] my knowledge of the events that took place. I found that the story itself is a very compelling story, because it’s something that’s relevant until today, because you have a lot of athletes making bad choices. […] Well, this story kind of sheds light on that, and shows the mistakes that was made by real-life people that were very, very confident, but made some bad choices. So I thought it would be good in that way – that it would help someone else make a better choice.

MD: Does the film provide a different narrative of the events than the media at the time and the movie Friday Night Lights?

AM: I think Friday Night Lights really gave a fictitious portrayal of Carter, even of that whole season; but of course, it’s Hollywood – it was the filmmaker’s, so to each his own. But the thing was that we grew up in middle class households back then. Most of us had two parents, [support of] two families, a house and a home, and we had pretty much new cars even as students, as teenagers. […] We were just a very confident and good athletic football team, but we weren’t playing dirty and all that kind of stuff, no. We were considered a dirty team by no means. Some people, they’d call us a little arrogant, a little conceited, that sort of thing. You could say that, but we were just confident.

I found that the story itself is a very compelling story, because it’s something that’s relevant until today, because you have a lot of athletes making bad choices.

MD: You have discussed in past interviews how the fact that the movie is about Black people has made it more difficult to make. Why did it take so long to get this particular story told?

AM: I think that’s the reason. Matter of fact, there’s this article in the Observer [where the author] actually was saying that he went through the process of trying to get this story made, and it was through Hollywood. As soon as [he pitched the story to people], they’d thought it was a great idea, so he wrote out the treatment and he sent it to them. And in the character description, it showed that the players were Black and this was basically about a Black high school, [then] the people said we can’t do that movie. He didn’t understand why. I don’t understand why. I think that this story is a good story regardless, Black or white, but they chose not to do it and said they couldn’t do it because it was a Black film. And maybe that’s the business side of Hollywood, so maybe it’s show business. They feel that a story like this will not be good for business […] Straight Outta Compton just came out, a film during the same time period, 1988 to 1989, that same time, and it’s done very well, and it’s a true story, again. So I think we have all those same things going for this story.

MD: Can you comment on other sports movies with Black characters, such as Remember the Titans?

AM: In fact that was the seventies, but I guess they feel like that was more of a Hollywood story because it did have a Black narrative in it but you still have a white, racism-type thing going back and forth, so it wasn’t strictly an urban Black film.

MD: Do you think that Carter High will open the door for future movies about Black people and sports and start a conversation about these issues?

AM: It’s my hope and prayer that it will begin that [conversation…] Even with Barack Obama recently, in his process of talking about the criminal justice system and how we have a lot of people locked up for crimes that didn’t involve any violence… I think if you could even see that these 17, 18 year-old teenagers [are] given 15 [to] 20 years is like, you really have taken their whole life away from them. That’s the system. That system that took place in 1988 that gave them that kind of time is still relevant and being implemented today. So I hope it will shed light on that, that this is not a new thing and it’s something that should be really taken a look at.


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