The first time I discovered Remember the Titans was not until a year after its release, but it was just at the perfect time.
I was in 8th grade, so I would always be sure to hang out at the Friday night high school (DGS Mustangs!) football games with my friends. As a senior who played center, my older brother Adam would normally have some of the players over on weekends . It also helped that it was the year the school won it’s first (and so far only) State Championship in football. The second to last game of that season is still the best football game I ever saw, professional or otherwise. It was also when a player on the team had died the previous summer in a road accident. There are a lot of parallels between that time and this film (other parallels to be mentioned later).
As I grow older, I am more comfortable with admitting I am not one who understands the logistics of football or the love that most people have for it. All of my siblings are fans in one way or another, and I respect them for it of course. However, to this day, I still don’t know why hash marks are on the field (as a proud veteran of High School Marching Band, I assumed those marks were just for us to use). Either way, Remember the Titans does what all great sports movies do: it makes the movie about much more than the sport it revolves around.
This movie was really the beginning of a series of live action Disney movies that were based on true stories around sports: later films would include 2002’s The Rookie (baseball), 2004’s Miracle (hockey), and 2006’s Invincible (football). Yet after 20 years (!), Titans still stands as the most loved (I would feel rather foolish if I did not also mention the earlier 1993 Cool Runnings starring the late great John Candy). Like Titans, all the films mentioned (with the exception of Miracle) were about underdogs who won in the end (though not always in the way you would think).
Titans tells the story of how, in 1971, a High School in a Virginian Suburb is forced to integrate the High School. This leads to another shake up, as the much loved football Coach, Bill Yoast (Will Patton) is suddenly replaced by the new Head Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington). Racial tensions between the two are not as apparent as that between the players of each race. Boone stays on as assistant coach, only to soon realize that Boone is doing more than just coaching football. Like the viewer (regardless of age), Yoast realizes Boone is teaching life lessons as well (especially on racial equality). Things get more tense for Boone when he realizes that if the team loses just one game, he will be fired.
Even though Denzel Washington is the star of the film, he does not take away from other characters of the film. True, not all the players of the team (who Boone is strict with, though insists he will “never cut a player”) can be given a form of backstory, but just the right amount of them are. The two most realized ones are that of Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) and Julius Campbell (Wood Harris). While Bertier is the captain, they soon become “co- captains” in a sense, and their friendship is as important to the film as that of the relationship between Boone and Yoast.
Each cast member plays their role so well it is as if the director (Boaz Yakin) was using the same intensity that was used by the real live Coach Boone (who recently passed away in December of 2019). A young Ryan Gosling plays Alan while an even younger (and very energetic) Hayden Panettiere plays Yoast’s daughter Sheryl. Each actor makes the most of their individual screen time without taking away from the story, making the overall chemistry of the film all the more inspirational.
Parents, I would argue this maybe the first film you could show your kids if they ever wanted to know about racism. With a PG rating, the language is mild as compared to what might have been used in real life (the most offensive terms include “sambo”, “knocking the chocolate out of folks” and referring to a character as a “monkey”). That said, I still would think this a family film that all ages should see.
Earlier on, I was talking about parallels, and there are no doubt some that still reverberate to this day (especially given the aftermath of the tragic death of George Floyd). Upon watching the film for, I am guessing, the 28th time at least, I realized one of the characters I probably relate to most was that of Coach Yoast. He is at a turning point as much as any character in the film. He is a kind hearted man, and does not seem, for the most part, to be racist (unlike characters like Gerry’s teammate/old friend Ray, who is easily one of the more hateable characters in film). Yet as the film progresses, we see Yoast still learns the situation of racism is deeper than he thought. I doubt I am the only white American who is able to say that I can relate to this learning process.
Now, of course, it is on to the next step, and doing something about it, so we can say to racism “NA NA NA NA, HEY HEY HEY,…..GOOD BYE”.