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Original Issue

Memphis, Gristly

An Oscar-nominated high school football doc sheds light on the inner-city game

In February 2009 Rich Middlemas was browsing Tennessee football blogs when a story about O.C. Brown, a destitute left tackle recruit who was receiving financial support from the Memphis football community, gave him pause. The UT fan in Middlemas envisioned a beefed-up O-line at his alma mater. The Hollywood producer in him envisioned a movie. That July, Middlemas and directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin relocated to Memphis, hoping they'd found their next project.

What they ended up with was Undefeated, an Academy Award--nominated documentary about Brown's Manassas High football team, a historically fruitless program in North Memphis—an area ranked among the country's most dangerous places to live—that was making a turn for the better. Early on in Undefeated, volunteer coach Bill Courtney shares his football mantra, which doubled as a mission statement for the film's directors: "Football doesn't build character; [it] reveals character."

For nine months the filmmakers embedded themselves with the Tigers, letting their story—one of troubled teens trying to exceed the limited expectations of inner-city athletes—tell itself. In the process they revealed characters as dynamic as anything NBC's Friday Night Lights offered over 76 hourlong episodes.

O.C. (left), the film's inspiration, is an explosive 315-pounder—but poor grades threaten to kill his D-I dreams. Chavis, a stud linebacker, wants to be a team role model—but he wrestles with a fiery temper, which landed him in a youth penitentiary. And Montrail, an undersized tackle, is their filmic foil: a standout student who doesn't have the support system to match O.C.'s because he is not a star athlete. In the yard behind his shotgun home Montrail holds a pet turtle up to the camera and drops a sagacious bomb: "Turtles are like human beings," he says. "On the outside they want to be hard and show their strength, but on the inside it's just all flimsy."

Undefeated is by definition a football film; it's hard not to root for Courtney's squad to make history. But come Feb. 26, when the Oscar for Documentary Feature is handed out (and Undefeated is a Vegas long shot, appropriately), it's O.C. and Chavis and Montrail whom fans of the movie will be cheering to win.