Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Rob Brown, and Ashanti. Rated PG.
The Inspirational Teacher Movie is almost as venerable as, well, the Inspirational Teacher, and for good reason. Principally, it's because we crap all over the people who care for our children while we do more important things, so going to the movies provide a low-cost payback for that ongoing slight. (Of course, items like Clara and Me and Spanglish suggest that there won't be a To Sir With Love for nannies and maids any time soon.)
ITMs are also a way to invest black men with the dignity and authority they are otherwise often denied in film. Coach Carter doesn't avoid the genre's well-established conventions--it slams them through the hoop. The thing goes in knowing what it wants to do and doesn't waste a lot of time getting there. At 137 minutes, that's a necessary virtue.
Of course, much of its virtuosity comes from Samuel L. Jackson, the sleek Louisville Slugger of a man playing Ken Carter, the real-life businessman and ex-B-ball star who vacated his successful sporting-goods store to make 400 bucks a month trying to turn inner-city no-hopers into winners with a future. That the unyielding new coach will succeed is never in doubt--they don't make movies about second-string ITs--but because the film's underlying message is that a high-school kid's life is worth more than any mere game, the sports action is all in the bonus category.
Working from a sturdy, unexceptional script by Mark Schwahn and John Gatins, director Thomas Carter (no relation, who got his start handling episodes of the old basketball series The White Shadow) has shifted the facts for narrative or other convenience. A couple of late-'90s seasons are telescoped into one and the movie was shot in southern California even though it is set up north, in Richmond, an industrial wasteland above San Francisco. Still, the events feel substantially real, especially because of Jackson's interplay with a fine young cast, led by Rick Gonzales as a would-be gangsta, Channing Tatum as the poor white kid keeping it real, Nana Gbewonyo as the star forward who won't crack his books, and Robert Ríchard as the coach's straight-arrow son who leaves private school to play back in the 'hood. (The actors provide much of the court action, too.)
There's a notably weak subplot involving the team's best student (Finding Forrester's Rob Brown) coping poorly with the pregnancy of his girlfriend, who is played somewhat self-consciously by the rapper Ashanti. (Some of the other small parts are a bit stiffly acted, as well.) But there are so many truths eloquently stated in Coach Carter that even the most jaded viewer may be surprised that there's still a thing or two to learn.