For North Memphis’ Manassas High School football team, failure was an expectation going into each season. For more than a century, the team hasn’t won a single playoff game. The program was underfunded and the players were considered undisciplined, unsportsmanlike and defeatist.
Dan Lindsay, T.J. Martin, Rich Middlemas and Glen Zipper came to USC to screen and discuss their Oscar-nominated documentary, Undefeated, on the North Memphis football program.
One morning three years ago, Middlemas and Lindsay were having breakfast in Santa Monica when they decided that they, like many documentary filmmakers, were sick of waiting for a great story to fall into their laps.
A few weeks later, Undefeated directors Martin and Lindsay came across the story of O.C. Brown, a Manassas High School football player who spent his weekdays living with coach Bill Courtney and his family to receive tutoring help.
Brown entered his senior year of high school facing pressure to impress college recruiters and bring his grades up to stay eligible for a Division I football scholarship. Lindsay and Martin were taken by Brown’s moving story.
“At the end of the day, it’s a coming of age film, but in O.C.’s case it would be something intimate to see him come of age on the big stage while he’s being courted by all of these different colleges and the idea of what is possible,” Martin said.
As is the nature of documentary filmmaking, once shooting began, the story’s scope began to expand beyond Brown’s story into the story of the Tigers’ journey to defy tradition and finally win a playoff game.
The documentary follows several players on the team and coach Courtney, a small business owner who volunteers his time to help rebuild the neglected team. As he leads the fortuneless program, Courtney deals with the on- and off-the-field issues concerning the young, underprivileged team.
For years, the Tigers were financially dependent on booking games against wealthy schools that outmatched Manassas in embarrassing losses. The players would take these humiliating losses with their heads down and expect another disappointing season for the team.
It took a coach like Courtney to recruit promising players and convince them that this was a Manassas team with the potential to do something unexpected. Undefeated tells the story of an underdog team, but it goes far beyond the events on the field, and the stars of the film aren’t the usual glamorized football stars.
“This is a football movie; the people who are scoring touchdowns probably are important, but that never even crossed our minds because we were worried more about the narrative and the character journey and the football was just the backdrop,” Lindsay said. “There was a team story there and they would represent the team.”
It didn’t take long for them to find Montrail ‘Money’ Brown, another one of the film’s captivating characters.
“We met Money on our first trip there,” Lindsay said. “It was really interesting because here was this guy who seemed to be doing everything right, but didn’t seem to have the same support system built around him purely out of the fact that he was not going to be able garner a Division I football scholarship.”
Lindsay and Martin as well as the film’s producer, Middlemas, moved to Memphis in July 2009 to begin shooting the film. In the process, they recorded more than 500 hours of footage to cut into the two-hour film.
“We’re not doing this unless we actually embed ourselves there because the only way to get the intimate moments that we were going for was for us to become a part of the team so that everyone forgot that we were making a film,” Lindsay said.
While Undefeated’s filming practices differ from the norm by documentary standards, this strategy worked well to establish the film’s authenticity.
“There are certain schools of thought that say ‘You weren’t directing if you were just shooting all the time,’ but part of that was to say we’re going to commit not just to the team, but to the community and to tell their stories responsibly and to take everything that’s happening in this community seriously,” Lindsay said.
The directors’ dedication to the team can be felt when you watch the documentary and truly feel attached toward the film’s characters. It’s hard to find a film as moving and rewarding as Undefeated.
Undefeated opens Feb. 17 in limited release.