Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science began awarding Oscars for the Best Documentary feature film in 1943, 16 documentary films involving sports have been nominated for the honor: “The Conquest of Everest” (1953), “Torero!” (1957), “The Horse With the Flying Tail” (1960), “La Grande Olimpiade” (1961), “The Legendary Champions” (1968), “The Olympics in Mexico” (1969), “Jack Johnson” (1970), “On Any Sunday” (1971), “The Great American Cowboy” (1973), “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” (1975), “Going the Distance” (1979), “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream” (1995), “When We Were Kings” (1996), “One Day in September” (1999), “On the Ropes” (1999), and “Murderball” (2005).
To that prestigious list add “Undefeated,” which was nominated as Best Documentary feature in 2011. Co-directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, “Undefeated” follows the fortunes of the Manassas High School football team during the 2009 season. This intimate and inspiring film focuses on four personalities: Coach Bill Courtney and three players — O.C. Brown, Montrail “Money” Brown (no relation) and Chavis Daniels — as the Tigers attempt to break the school’s 110-year playoff jinx.
Like many of the other Oscar-nominated titles, “Undefeated” is a sports documentary in name only. Lindsay and Martin use a season of high-school football to chronicle the lives of three adolescents on the cusp of manhood as well as the relationships they forge with their coach. The four come from vastly different backgrounds: Courtney is a white, middle-aged, successful businessman; his players are African-American teens whose inner-city neighborhood of North Memphis is reeling from unemployment and violence. And yet, as Lindsay and Martin show, coach and players transcend the seemingly enormous chasm with respect and compassion.
Wrote Eric Sondheimer in the Los Angeles Times: “If you want to know how playing high school football can teach lessons in life, the documentary ‘Undefeated’ is a must see. . . . ‘Undefeated’ captures the contradictions, the struggles, the successes and the failures with a realistic, compelling presentation.”
Lindsay and Martin previously tag-teamed on “Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong” (2008). “Undefeated” premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March of 2011, and then was acquired by the Weinstein Company. One of its producers is Seth Gordon, who directed the acclaimed video-game documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” (2007).
SportsLetter interviewed the two Los Angeles-based directors by phone as they made the media rounds required of Academy Award nominees.
— David Davis