With the success of last year’s exceptional films Hustle & Flow and Crash, Terrence Howard’s career has become a bellwether for the plight of the black actor in America. He’s a vanguard for the next generation following at the heels of performers like Don Cheadle, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Forest Whitaker. Based on the true story of inspirational swim coach Jim Ellis, a beacon of community renewal in 1970’s Philadelphia, Pride blends that era’s racial and economic realities into a Hollywood smoothie of formulaic pablum. A funk inflected musical score screams out “good times” from every other scene, and the miscasting of Tom Arnold and Bernie Mac in supporting roles provides an unintended jocular static. Pride portrays an unrecognizable version of America’s racial sadness that Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep examined thoughtfully in the context of a Watts ghetto.
Jim Ellis (Howard) fights with a white police officer on the deck of a swimming pool where his high school team of all black swimmers has been disallowed from competing against an all white squad. Ellis’ subsequent arrest and incarceration are hidden from the audience so that the story can lurch forward, from the mid-’60s to 1973, after he has graduated from college and is looking for a job in academics. The screenwriters are in such a rush to get a pat on the back for “demonstrating uncommon valor” that they ignore the painful event that the audience needs to calculate the maturing of Jim Ellis’ character.
Instead, Terrence Howard, the actor, is relegated to modeling duties with a wardrobe of crisp and stylish shirts that further obscure Jim Ellis, the man. This isn’t simply a chapter from modern black history lite; it’s a commercial for a cinematic ghetto theme park we can visit anytime we like and feel all right about it. You don’t have to feel too uncomfortable about a rival swim team’s racist coach because it’s Tom Arnold in the role.
After being condescended to during an interview for a job at a Philadelphia college, Ellis takes a low-level city assignment closing down the Marcus Foster recreational center in an impoverished neighborhood called Nicetown. On his first day, Ellis encounters a group of energetic boys playing basketball outside the center just a few feet from where a local drug lord plies his trade.
Inside the disused facility that houses an empty swimming pool, indolent maintenance man Elston (Bernie Mac) puts up a gruff affront that Ellis dutifully ignores as he starts boxing up the mountains of files and supplies that litter the halls. Upon filling the pool using only a garden hose—Ellis has plenty of time since he’s taken up residence on a cot—he informs the boys outside that they can swim if they adhere to the pool rules of “no clowning.”
With their basketball hoop confiscated by the city, the youngsters engage Ellis to share his swimming skills with them. In a blink, the motley group becomes a full-fledged swim team with the addition of an experienced girl swimmer who wafts into the pool out of nowhere.
Loaded words like “pride” and “hero” obfuscate the real work of everyday people who follow their inner voices to make the world around them better. Pride is a movie that suggests Jim Ellis’ arrest before college gave him something that he could never live down. It fails to show what that experience truly entailed, and how this irrepressible man absorbed it to become a guiding force for generations of kids. Pride mitigates and collapses its subject into a pop mentality, afraid of the trouble it aspires to disclose. It is a cowardly and cynical movie. MTW