Glory Road tells the story of the first all-black starting lineup of basketball players in a major-college championship game, at Texas Western College in 1966. The team was led by their groundbreaking yet humble coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas, Undertow). Debut director James Gartner struggles with solidifying the film's socially explosive period aspects against the exacting demands of recreating a season's worth of hair-raising basketball games surging toward the 1966 NCAA tournament. Josh Lucas excites the screen as Coach Haskins, but is frequently upstaged by the talented ensemble of upstart actors that include Derek Luke, Mehcad Brooks, Al Shearer and Damaine Radcliff. Jon Voight delivers a remarkable performance as University of Kentucky's bigoted coach Adolph Rupp. Entertaining and cathartic in spite of its faults, Glory Road fills an important gap in sports history.
Texas Western College is now called the University of Texas at El Paso, and it's easy to imagine that Don Haskins' color-blind basketball coaching contributed in some degree to the school's name change. For their part, screenwriters Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Giliois do an admirable job of capturing the turbulent social atmosphere of racism that plagued the young African-American basketball players whose game skills exceeded those of their rivals. It's too bad that Gartner doesn't know how to frame and layer the on-the-court action so that it resonates with the rest of the movie. Most surprising is the sloppy editing from the estimable John Wright (The Hunt for Red October) that turns the film's climactic final game against the (all-white) powerhouse University of Kentucky into a kind of fast-forward pulp accented by some glaring continuity mistakes.
Glory Road is a movie that could and should have been every bit as invigorating and satisfying as Gavin O'Connor's Miracle, which layered its Olympic hockey story with a full range of character emotion, social context and sports action. Gartner lets us feel some of the vehement hatred and abuse that these black basketball players suffered, but we don't get enough of their reaction against it. There is a brief period when the black players on the team shun the white players during a game, but we don't see the decisiveness in their eyes that portrays their inner crisis because the director doesn't know how to incorporate close-ups into the sequence.
The movie ends with a credit sequence that's balanced with commentary from the real-life Don Haskins and several of the actual Texas Western players who contributed so famously to opposing segregation in college basketball during that amazing NCAA season in 1966. This closure helps to compensate for the personal revelation that the film lacks.
Glory Road; Rated: PG; Directed by James Gartner; Starring Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Mehcad Brooks, Al Shearer, Damaine Radcliff, Jon Voight, Tatyana Ali