One of my all-time favorite films and in that rarefied air of being watched dozens of times by my siblings and I growing up is 2000’s Remember the Titans. It’s also one of the first films I can recall seeing in theaters with my family as a 10-year-old. I know there were others (I’m sure I’ve shared the peeing story and Jingle All the Way, right?!), but this one stands out.
The Disney biographical sports film is loosely based on the true story of Herman Boone and his attempt to integrate the T.C. Williams High School football team in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971.
Can I just pause there? I wouldn’t be born for another 19 years, so 1971 isn’t in my lifetime, but it’s in a lot of people’s lifetimes! And if you’re talking high school, let’s say 1971 was someone’s senior year, so perhaps 17-years-old? That person is only 68-years-old today! And their parents could still be alive, too. The point being, history isn’t that long ago and those who had segregationists mindsets at one point (at least I hope it’s “one point”) are still alive today. That’s just interesting to think about.
And while I’m paused here, I’ll go ahead and spoil you on my thoughts: Remember the Titans is the second greatest sports film of all time (Rocky is a religion in this household, so it’s an automatic number one) and I will hear nothing cross about it. Just kidding, you can disagree, but what’s a better sports flick for that number two position? (Or three, four, five, etc. if you’re going to rank it lower and given that a Rolling Stone article I’m looking at doesn’t even put it in its top 30 …)
Our greatest living actor, Denzel Washington, plays Boone, who comes into the football program to replace Bill Yoast (played by Will Patton) as the head football coach, so Yoast becomes his assistant, all in an effort to integrate the program with black and white officials and players. To that point, the two captains of the team are Gerry Bertier (played by Ryan Hurst) and Julius Campbell (played by Wood Harris).
The film is so ingrained in my head, much like my re-watching (which I also reviewed) of Sandlot, that I almost segment it by each classic moment and memory of it in my head. And as with Sandlot, I wondered prior to my viewing, is it going to hold up to my memory of it? After all, it’s been years since I’ve done a re-watching.
Of course it did! Did you not see the name “Denzel Washington” up there? It’s impossible for him to be in a bad movie because even the worst script and directing, he’s going to elevate it. Seriously, I’ve not seen a Denzel movie and regretted seeing it. Like pizza, some Denzel movies are better than others, but there’s no bad Denzel movie.
It also must be this portrayal of Boone that was my first exposure to Denzel and what I most associated him with for the longest time.
I’ve never been one of those people who can quote movies out of thin air, but as I was watching this one, I was saying the lines as the actors were saying the lines and it was a blast!
So, we get the scene of the black community coming out to support Boone, once he’s named head coach, and chanting, “You’re our coach!” Because that representation mattered to them. Once coach, Boone then meets with the black players trying out for the team and has a great moment with Petey Jones (played by Donald Fiason) talking about all the “fun” they’re going to have that season. For the record, when I was a kid, I thought Petey was such a whiny baby and I still think that! I do think Boone is hard on him, but even when Yoast gets mildly hard on him later, he quits on his team.
Boone doesn’t take any crap from anybody, including Bertier trying to act like the captain beyond the purview of the head coach. So, when they are about to leave for camp, Bertier comes up to him to basically tell him integration ain’t happening and Boone makes Bertier call him daddy. Come on, that’s hilarious alpha stuff! Then he integrates the buses heading to camp, which, the persons sitting next to each other on the bus will then be roommates. It’s a smart strategy, albeit it with growing pains involving fights (between Bertier and Campbell, too), to get the black and white players integrated.
Boone wants all the bunk mates to get to know each other and of course, Bertier and Campbell are bunk mates, so in one of my favorite exchanges of the film, they “try” to get to know each other, but Campbell calls Bertier out on one of the racist white players who is purposefully not blocking. “Attitude reflects leadership, captain,” he tells Bertier. YES.
One of my favorite characters is Louie Lastik (played by Ethan Suplee) because he’s a big old white boy, who doesn’t care about skin color, so he sits and sings with the black players at camp, much to the chagrin of the other players.
In another great demonstration of Boone’s hard-assery is when he’s having the team do drills and Blue (played by Earl Poitier) says he’s thirsty. Boone responds, “Water is for cowards. Water makes you weak. Water is for washing the blood out of your uniform and you don’t get no blood on my uniform. We are going to do up downs until Blue is no longer tired … and thirsty.” Of course, that’s awful, he should be allowed to drink some water, but I just love the Denzel delivery, baby.
Denzel gets to stretch his acting chops when he makes the team run to Gettysburg National Cemetery, where he reflects on Lincoln and the Civil War and the same war they’re fighting today. That’s pretty much the changing point for the team to start getting along and on the same page.
However, it’s sort of a cultural shock when they return from camp to the “real world” where there’s still hate and division and protest over the integration, including from Bertier’s own girlfriend. With that pressure, Bertier starts to back down a bit from his friendship with Campbell, unfortunately.
The racist monsters give it to Boone like this: If he loses even one game, he’s fired and Yoast is back in as head coach. They also give Yoast an ultimatum later on: Either you throw the game or you’re out of the football hall of fame.
In other words, even though the school board made a theatric show of ostensibly integrating and bringing on a black head coach, they are doing everything possible to ensure he doesn’t succeed.
Yet, he does and Yoast sacrifices the HOF for the team and its success, which was obviously the right thing to do. The team goes undefeated. And it helps that they have the coolest, most memorable walk-out singing their Mighty Mighty Titans song and dancing. I love it every single time.
We get a lot of great football scenes of high octane action and hits and runs and throws. That’s all fun stuff. You feel the intensity on the field for Boone and his team to win, so he doesn’t get fired. You feel Yoast’s tension with Boone and then the heightened tension once he receives the ultimatum.
But still, the best scenes are off the field, like in the locker room when they’re singing and making yo mama jokes.
One of the best scenes, too, is when Sunshine (“Suuuuuunshine!”), a military kid California transplant, comes onto the team as quarterback and proves his arm to Boone right there on the spot. But of course, he gets pushback partly for being from Cal-i-forn-YA, but also for being considered a “fruit cake.” That part doesn’t hold up as well 21-some years later when I watched it, but he also gets ingratiated into the team, so that’s good.
Along the way, though, in one of the saddest scenes I can recall from my childhood, Bertier gets hit by a truck (akin to real life, although it was a single-car crash) while driving and is paralyzed. That was so dang sad. But he and Campbell have a “we’re brothers” moment in the hospital and well, I’m not crying, you’re crying.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out how perfect a child actress Hayden Panettiere as Yoast’s daughter, Sheryl, was in this, also bucking gender conventions because she loved football and not playing with dolls (“I just did my nails!”) like Boone’s daughter of the same age.
But aside from Denzel and the power of the story, the real star of the film and one of the reasons I remember it so fondly (and that it still holds up!) is that Remember the Titans has one of the best soundtracks of any film period, not just among sports films.
Check out some of these songs: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,”; “Peace Train,”; “Spirit in the Sky,”; “Na Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,”; Sunshine’s song, “Spill the Wine,”; and so many more.
I love all of these songs and associate them with their respective scenes. Like when that guitar revs up and the montage begins with, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” Agh! That’s my jam, man.
Folks, I just love this movie. It’s flawless. Yes, it’s not historically accurate. Yes, it’s Disney sappy. Yes, yes yes. But I love it. It hits all my spots. Disney has that formula and it works.
And they had Denzel. Denzel delivers. Always.