Remember the Titans succeeds partially because it frames sports and entertainment as cultural battlegrounds for larger political forces.
n the opening scene of the 2001 biopic Ali, the then-named Cassius Clay Jr. (Will Smith) trains for a bout with Sonny Liston in a montage interwoven with a live performance by Sam Cooke and an appearance by Malcolm X. The buoyancy of the music creates a tension with our historical knowledge: Malcolm X’s assassination; Sam Cooke was shot dead under contested circumstances; the athlete later known as Muhammad Ali would shortly become a flashpoint for all manner of national, racial, and political tensions. In Remember the Titans, a Jerry Bruckheimer production made in collaboration with the Walt Disney Company the year prior, soul music is something like the catalyst for a feel-good case study in racial integration. The soundtrack itself expresses this theme by incorporating songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Yusuf Islam alongside The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. The juxtaposition of the two films is instructive: Ali weaves in soul music as a corollary to its hero’s struggle to reconcile his ambition and celebrity with his political subjectivity, while Titans seems to suggest a causal effect, as if the enjoyment of this music was per se a political action.
The Baby Boomer-flattering nostalgia of this equation aside, much of Remember the Titans succeeds not only on the strengths of its soundtrack, ensemble cast and a robust collection of football-movie cliches, but also because it frames sports and entertainment as cultural battlegrounds for larger political forces. It purports to tell the true story of Coach Herman Boone’s (Denzel Washington) tenure at T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, Virginia, where the racially-integrated football team won the state championship in a legendary 1971 season. While this jerry-rigged premise doesn't pass the smell test and flirts with outright fabrication—among many, many caveats, T.C. Williams had been integrated since 1965, and its vast pool of athletic talent, combining not two but three schools into one, created a powerhouse team far from underdog status that won most of its games, including the 1971 championship, in shutouts—the idea of adrenaline-fueled sports fandom muscling the fraught process of integration into reality has enough resonance to keep the story afloat.
The film’s auteur signature is that of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose lightning-struck logo alongside Disney’s in the opening credits suggested, for the years of their high-grossing partnership, a necessary bolt of inspiration in a dry pop cultural landscape. The Bruckheimer touch has much to do with his most significant individual collaborators, producer Don Simpson and director Michael Bay. The former helped define the ’80s with a certain airbrushed vulgarity—viz. Flashdance (1983), Top Gun (1986), and Days of Thunder (1990)—while the latter ushered in Hollywood’s 21st century by translating his TV-commercial aesthetic into are cognizable film language. The connecting link is a staunchly jingoistic strain of air-headed patriotism that defies criticism; no analysis needs to be made of the bozo-libertarian cliches animating a picture like Armageddon (1998). But the signature Bruckheimer pictures (like Top Gun, a war movie without a war) do more than present cliches hand in hand (shaking, fist bumping, bro-hugging). They are pegged to the national mood of their era—situated at the end of the Bill Clinton administration, a viewer could interpret Titans’s slew of “white boy can hang” moments as standing in for the superficial charm of America’s “first Black president”—while hovering outside of it, timeless open texts about American contradictions and the profitable business of making fraught political realities into popular myths.
At center, Remember the Titans is a crowd-pleasing iteration of the integration narrative. This type of story has endured in Hollywood, and not long ago took center stage again when 2018’s Green Book won the Academy Award for Best Picture, itself loosely based on the friendship between Italian-American Frank Vallelonga and Black pianist Don Shirley, a bond forged by touring the Jim Crow South together. The Best of Enemies (2019) depicted another “unlikely” friendship between Black activist Ann Atwater and KKK leader C.P. Ellis. Integration narratives set in the context of the Civil Rights era recall the treatment of the Civil War in public memorials and popular culture. The essentially conservative edict of these movies says that the conflict took place in the past, the hard work has concluded, and audiences can take comfort in the friendships forged in the aftermath. The critical transformation in these films belongs to the figure of the flawed yet sympathetic White man whose abandonment of a racist power structure grants him dignity. In Remember the Titans, this figure is Bill Yoast (Will Patton), T.C. Williams’ White head coach who loses his position to Boone but accepts an offer to coach defense under him, a segregated arrangement that provides the barrier for both men to surmount together.
Boone, who the film suggests maintains his fierce coaching style for fear of losing the players’ respect, also has to soften in order to move toward the more paternal relationship modeled by Yoast. Washington plays Boone as the paradigmatic coach-as-drill-sergeant; some of the setups here, overseen by journeyman director Boaz Yakin, come straight from Full Metal Jacket (1987), a resonance that's more than studio synthesis. In a shameless reach, the film has Boone take his struggling squad on a midnight cross-country jog to Gettysburg National Cemetery, where he solemnly equates their training camp with the Civil War. Almost anyone who has played high school football will have encountered some sadistic individual who thinks himself a Vince Lombardi or a Denzel, relishing the opportunity to deliver hard-ass speeches to dehydrated teenagers while making them run "suicide" drills on the practice field. The real Herman Boone was eventually forced out of TC Williams due to his abusive tactics.
More than any other variety of sports film, football movies are war movies, and operate with an attendant awareness of bodily injury and gruesome sacrifice. The perversity of the small stakes involved with amateur sports versus the outsized potential for life-threatening injury opens a movie-killing abyss of bathos and poor taste. In Titans, said injury befalls the All-American Bertier (Ryan Hurst), who lost the use of his legs in a car accident which put an end to his promising career. The film can’t resist rigging the timeline so that Bertier suffers the accident before the state championship, not later as he did in real life. This sleight of hand transforms the screen character into yet another iteration of George Gipp, the “Gipper” played onscreen by Ronald Reagan in Knute Rockne, All American (1940),whose untimely death at that film’s climax provided emotional ballast for Rockne’s coaching career, as well as a useful persona for the actor to invoke in his political campaigns.
Bertier’s loss of mobility seems particularly striking in a film that places so much emphasis on the power of song and dance to dispel harsh realities. While the closing credits highlight several Titans players who went on to find stable careers, the film takes place in a movie-version of the South where all the characters seem to live in the same kinds of homes and wear the same clothes. The legacies of segregation appear to have vanished overnight, unlike the decade’s other iconic high school football film Friday Night Lights (2004), which emphasized the gulf between the players’ gridiron dreams and the squalid reality of their impoverished Texas upbringings. One of the rare ruptures in Titans is a scene where a police officer pulls up alongside Black team captain Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) on an afternoon stroll; the stoic, paternalistic way the officer congratulates Campbell on the team’s recent victory temporarily breaks through the movie’s pleasant fantasia, as no compliment the officer can pay will banish the specter of intimidation. Intended, surely, as a sign of how the Titans’ success is helping to heal old divisions, this brief encounter instead suggests the fraught relationship between Black athletes and their fans, as well as the costs of failing to meet expectations.
Revisiting the movie on an airplane recently, I was transported back to my years playing football at a small Southern Catholic high school, and struck anew by this untenable fantasy of sportsmanlike harmony. The film’s most significant relationship is not between Boone and Yoast but between captains Bertier and Campbell, whose hard-won friendship provides a model for the team to unite around. The dynamic between actors Hurst and Harris makes for an appealing exemplar of homosocial bonding, particularly in the “strong side”/“left side” scene where they signal their mutual respect on the practice field with some friendly shoving, clasping their helmets close together and locking eyes. During their initial meeting, when they’re forced to sit together on the bus to training camp, they find common ground when Julius silences a teammate who attempts to start a singalong of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” (“Got that right,” Bertier grunts.) By the end of the movie, though, a ten-years-older Campbell leads the mourning Titans in a solemn a cappella rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” at Bertier’s graveside, perhaps the most significant, tin-eared, and risible character transformation in the film. The sense of fraternity is fulsome, false, and finally, lucrative. In 2006, the Remember the Titans soundtrack was certified Platinum.
Remember the Titans is available to stream on Disney+. It's also available to rent and purchase from Amazon Prime, YouTube, AppleTV+, Google Play, and Vudu.
Brendan Boyle co-hosts the RoyCast and has contributed writing to The Ringer and Cinema Scope. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.