The racial attitudes of a late '60s, early '70s Philadelphia keep black coach Jim Ellis at arm's length from his dream of training a team of competitive swimmers. So he decides to take whatever work he can find and is given the job of cleaning out an old recreational facility marked for demolition. After bumping heads with the building's live-in maintenance superintendent, Elston, Ellis sets to work and discovers an indoor competition-size pool beneath all the junk.
He fills the pool for his own enjoyment after a hard day's work, but ends up inviting in a motley crew of neighborhood kids with nothing better to do in the summer heat. With the kids' hearty encouragement and the help of a newly energized Elston, Ellis decides to take on the unofficial task of revitalizing the Rec Center and creating the first African-American swim team in Philadelphia.
Coach Ellis has a deep-seated passion to give the teens in his community a chance to grow as people and as teammates. "I believe in them so much. There's so much they can do," he says. "Life is what you make of it." Given the label of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation to put on his team's uniforms, Ellis turns the acronym PDR into Pride, Determination and Resilience.
Ellis puts his life on the line when he steps in front of a pimp/drug dealer's car to take two boys out of the backseat. The dealer, Franklin, threatens him, but the coach warns the thug to leave the boys alone. Ellis employs tough love, too. He sets rules of conduct for the team and holds each of his swimmers to them. He demonstrates to the kids that, like them, he must make upright choices. When he loses his temper and crosses the line, he immediately suspends himself from involvement in the big swim meet. And although he was stung in his youth by the barbs of racism, Ellis will not allow his team to dwell on racist acts perpetrated against them and encourages them to walk a higher path.
One of the swimmers was raised by his older sister, Sue. She is a self-sacrificing woman who fights to keep her brother in school and away from the gang he used to be part of.
When we first meet Elston, he's an empty man living in and "maintaining" a dilapidated recreation facility that has "no economic worth to itself or the city it serves." When Coach Ellis opens the doors to the youth in the area and brings life back into the Rec Center, Elston slowly comes back to life as well. He fights to keep the place open and when they get permission to hold a swim meet there, he embraces the coach and tearfully says, "Thank you, Mr. Jim. Thank you so much."
In an effort to gain a little support for the boy's new swim team (and maybe for his own spiritual sake, too), Elston reconnects at church. He puts his arm around his surprised pastor and talks about John 3:16. In a later scene, Coach Ellis expresses his hope that the community will come watch the team. Elston replies, "The Lord works in mysterious ways." We then find that the whole church has shown up for the team's first swim meet. One of the swimmers wears a medallion around his neck that he kisses before he swims (we're never told or shown if it has religious significance). As the coach crawls into a makeshift bed at the Rec Center he says, "God bless this space."
The young swimmers all have well-muscled bodies that are well-displayed (in shorts and Speedos) throughout the film. When a girl joins the team, the guys leer at her in her swimsuit and make off-color comments. And when the coach bumps into Franklin and his gaggle of "girls" (who are provocatively dressed), he's offered their "services." Ellis demurs.
Other women wear tight-fitting tube-tops, short skirts and form-fitting dresses. One of the boys makes a joke about a condom breaking. Crass jokes fly about the tiny swimsuits the team has to wear, while Elston cracks wise about swimming naked.
The film opens in the late '60s when Ellis is a student and the only black swimmer on his college swim team. When he attends a meet, the other teams and spectators scream and yell that he shouldn't be allowed to swim. His coach stands up for him, but a riot breaks out when Ellis loses his temper and punches a cop. He is battered by other policemen and ends up on the floor with a foot pinning his head to the ground.
Coach Ellis' hot temper flares again when Franklin and his goons trash the Rec Center and are caught urinating in the pool. The coach punches and throws two of the young punks and almost drowns Franklin. (He later laments his actions, saying, "Turns out, I'm no better than those thugs.") A competing white swimmer kicks one of the PDR swimmers in the head to take him out of the race. Another swimmer accidentally hits his head on the side of the pool as he makes a turn.
Crude or Profane Language
A half-dozen or so s-words. "H---," "d--n," "a--" and "b--ch" bring the tally to 30-plus. The n-word is used several times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The coach sees Franklin selling drugs to a kid on the street. Franklin tries to lure Sue's brother back into the gang by offering him money and beer. Franklin smokes cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
The negative racial attitudes of the late '60s are an important part of this story. Though the scenes dedicated to this conflict are short (and instructive), the racist words and actions are still ugly.
My grandmother lived with us when I was a kid, but we never shared much common ground—I was always running in a sweat while she sat and gave me dry, disapproving glances. But, strangely, we were like-minded about one thing: sports movies. A movie such as Pride of the Yankees or It Happens Every Spring would draw us both to the TV from our positions at opposite ends of the house. Together we'd pull for the underdog and cheer for the good guy to make the right, though tough, choices. Pride is a lot like those flicks we enjoyed together. Sure, it's formulaic to a fault, with a coach who faces impossible odds, falls on his kisser in embarrassment, then somehow raises a phoenix from the ashes and tries to win the big one. But this story also has something we haven't seen a lot of lately—adults who want to hold young people accountable and teach them of respect and hard work. They really care about the kids, in and out of the pool, and help us do the same.
There is one scene that encapsulates this connection for me. Sue is reading by herself when her formerly gangbanging and decidedly less-than-academic brother comes in. He moves to a small bookcase and starts looking for a book to read. She watches him with initial confusion—he's been working hard with the coach to keep his grades up, but ... he's reading a book!? As the boy moves to sit with his literary choice in hand, the look in Sue's eyes shifts to wonder and then to a restrained joy. It's a subtle moment, yet it superlatively confirms the rewards of patience, enduring effort and sacrifice.
That's not to say Pride doesn't also flail around in the deep end of the pool. The story editing jumps back and forth and can leave you scratching your head now and again. And the camera spends a lot of time gazing at the chiseled young men, from a variety of angles, as they stand around dripping and glistening in their itsy bitsy teenie weenie ... swimsuits. (It would've made my grandmother blush, anyway.) But it's the totally unnecessary foul language scattered throughout the movie that would definitely have driven Grandma from the room. As it will others. Which is too bad, really, because, like I said, this is the kind of sports flick she and I could have rooted for.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Terrence Howard as Coach Ellis; Bernie Mac as Elston; Kimberly Elise as Sue Davis; Kevin Phillips as Andre; Tom Arnold as Coach Bink
Sunu Gonera ( )