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VOL. 127 | NO. 32 | Thursday, February 16, 2012

‘Undefeated’ Puts City in Limelight

By JONATHAN DEVIN

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It’s been seven years since the made-in-Memphis movie “Walk the Line” won an Oscar for Best Actress and had four other nominations, but at this year’s Academy Awards – set for Feb. 26 – Memphis will be back in the spotlight.

The Manassas Tigers football team is the focus of “Undefeated,” the Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin film that is nominated for an Academy Award.

(Photo: Dan Lindsay/TJ Martin/ The Weinstein Company)

 

The documentary feature “Undefeated” by co-directors T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay and producer Rich Middlemas hopes to add one more win to the winning season of the Manassas High School football team, whose story the film tells.

“We knew this was going to be something special,” said Sharon Fox O’Guin, deputy film commissioner for the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission, who worked closely with the directors and producer during the nine months they lived in Memphis while shooting.

“Having the project recognized by the Academy just verifies the feelings we had early on. It’s a story that plays out so many times in the city, not just in this one school.”

“Undefeated” documents the story of the Manassas football team whose members were noted for raw talent but struggled with keeping their grades up and with the problems of inner-city life.

Volunteer coaches, notably Bill Courtney who is highlighted in the film, went well beyond the lines of the gridiron to keep their players on the right track, serving as mentors, providing space in their own homes to study and feeding them meals.

The film premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin in March and was the subject of an all-night bidding war after its screening. It was purchased by The Weinstein Co. and sent on a nationwide festival tour.

Along the way it picked up a Critics Choice Award Nomination, a special jury award at DOC NYC, and at Indie Memphis won the Audience Award for Documentary Feature.

Erik Jambor, executive director of Indie Memphis, said that the excitement around the film after its premiere was such that he felt lucky that The Weinstein Co. agreed to the Memphis screening.

“Everybody loved it,” Jambor said. “We had far more people that wanted to see it than seats. It felt like we could have filled up the Orpheum from all the calls we got about it.”

Jambor noted that another Memphis-area documentary, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” about the West Memphis Three saga, is also nominated against “Undefeated.” The three-part series was credited with changing public perception nationwide about the case against the three men convicted of ritualistic murders of three boys.

“Undefeated” will have its theatrical release in Memphis on March 2. Its success still comes as a pleasant surprise to Middlemas.

“You never know how it’s going to turn out,” said Middlemas, referring to the process of making a documentary. “I didn’t have any expectations, but in fairness I don’t feel like we set out to make a football movie per se. Football provided the spine to the story, but we wanted it to be experiential. There were some powerful moments and there was no way of knowing that stuff would happen.”

That, he said, makes documentaries fairly unpredictable as winners or losers.

Middlemas, who studied at the University of Tennessee, approached the film commission after reading a newspaper article about O.C. Brown, a Manassas football player who was gaining recognition under the supervision of the volunteer coaches.

Middlemas originally envisioned a story about Brown, but the focus widened after a week of shooting.

“With documentaries, there has to be something that interests you as a filmmaker that you want to document,” Jambor said. “In this case it became a more interesting story once they started filming. It expanded. It’s important for filmmakers, especially in the documentary realm, to be open to what’s happening and where the story might take them.”

“The fact that the story was going to be unfolding, it sounded like it was going to be interesting,” Middlemas said. “We liked the idea of a story unfolding on screen with the fly on the wall quality.”

That wasn’t much to go on for Memphis City Schools, the Manassas team and coaching staff, or the film commission.

“We look back at the company’s credits,” Fox O’Guin said. “They had a track record. And then there was the passion of the producer and directors, spending their own money to move here and live. They had credits already. So even though they didn’t know how it was going to end, they had that passion.”

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