Learning about black space through film

Released in 2007, Pride — a historical sport film about “the first black swim team” — came out during the same time as similar films (Coach Carter (2005), Glory Road (2006), The Express (2008)) also focusing on relationships between race and sport. It also primarily focuses on one individual (Coach Jim Ellis, played by Terrence Howard) in telling the story of how individual success in sport leads to success in life, and such successes also solve social problems (like racism)[1].

“Inspired by a true story,” Pride follows a group of young people (mostly men, as usual) who are initially reluctant to participate in the sport. But after some early difficulties, they respond to Ellis’s “tough-love” approach and win, in — and out of — the pool. Several scholars have pointed to the challenges of analyzing sport historical films as pieces of public history, and the ease of confusing inaccuracy of details (incorrect scores of games, wrong ‘handed-ness’ of athletes, etc.) with lies or falsity[2]. Such a conflation can cause us to miss the broader truths “told” by the movies, and “because much of the public learns its history from movies,[…] sport historians [should] consider the ways in which the public engages with the past and the significant ideological work that sport films perform”[3].

Similarly, cultural critic Henry Giroux calls film a public pedagogical tool that, by merging entertainment and education, “offers up subject positions, mobilizes desires, influences us unconsciously, and helps to construct the landscape of American culture…film produces and incorporates ideologies that represent the outcome of struggles marked by historical realities of power and the deep anxieties of the times; it also deploys power through the important role it plays in connecting the production of pleasure and meaning to the mechanisms and practices of powerful teaching machines”[4]. To put more simply, we learn about our world through the pleasurable experience of watching films, and oftentimes, films are ways for dominant ideologies of class, gender, sexuality, and race to be disseminated. A critical analysis of films should “engage how the ideological and affective work together to offer up particular ways of viewing the world in ways that come to matter to individuals and groups”[5]. Films are powerful pedagogical tools that teach us broader truths about our selves and our world.

So, what might we learn from Pride?

Like many similar sport films released in the first decade of the 21st century, we learn about connections between sport and race. While the film does make attempts to explore post-Civil Rights era racism at a structural level, it eventually fails and offers a similar decontextualized narrative of overcoming racism through hard work and individual effort (or, in this film, the individual characteristics of Pride, Determination, and Resiliency). This film’s juxtaposition of pristine white suburbs with decaying black inner-city ghetto teaches us about racialized space. What follows is a (too long) summary of the film, interspersed with bits of analysis that help (I hope!) us think about what Pride teaches us about race.

The recent policing of racial boundaries at a McKinney, Texas swimming pool — where white police officers terrorized black teenagers – led to some helpful contextualization from news sources such as NPR and The Atlantic. The definitive work on this so far is still Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters. These works all demonstrate that, in America, the swimming pool (and other swimming spaces), has become synonymous with white space, oftentimes through violent action of white mobs. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, on his facebook page, calls the incident another in a long line of the violent policing of black bodies in white space. Read in this way, this film is a potent pedagogical tool that teaches us about white space and black space and demonstrates that black bodies must assimilate to white space for success because there is no avenues for success in black spaces. Pride — a film about black bodies competing in the traditionally white space of swimming pools (and white sport of swimming) — is an appropriate cultural text for beginning to explore how racialized space is culturally produced and “naturalized” through depictions of our past.

The film begins with the familiar “inspired by a true story” and a dateline, “Salisbury, North Carolina, 1964.” A group of all white (save one) young men wearing Cheyney State College warm-ups walks down a hallway. The young black man, Jimmy, is stopped by his coach, an older white man. They discuss whether or not they should even participate because the folks “down here” just aren’t happy with Jimmy swimming at the meet. Jimmy decides to compete because he’s worked too hard to quit. 

A quick cut to the Jimmy behind the blocks. He is the only black body visible anywhere, on the pool deck, in the stands…we hear the crowd booing and the occasional individual voice, one calls out “go back to where you come from.” As Jimmy steps on the blocks, he looks down at the clear water in the pool, the lane lines; the water is still and the distance is the same for everyone – the measurements of the clean pool offer equality, every person competes on the same level.

Jimmy dives into the pool and he swims the whole first lap before he notices that he’s alone in that water (all of his white competitors refused to swim). Again, a voice emerges amidst the booing crowd, “get out of our nice clean pool!” Jimmy is frustrated and mad as he exits the pool. A cop tells him to “shut his black ass up” and get to the bus. Jimmy has had enough; he punches the cop and is then jumped by the other cops. Chaos. His coach yells, “don’t fight ‘em, Jimmy!” and the scene ends with a close up of the anguished face of Jimmy, pressed down against the concrete pool deck, with a cop’s black shoe on his head and cops’ hands pinning his cuffed wrists behind him. We cut to a moving camera flying over a river, the suburbs, and then the city of Philadelphia as 70s funk music plays during the title sequence.

This opening is instructive in that it demonstrates that Jimmy is an experienced swimmer, is used to being the only black person in his sport, and that he does not shrink away from confrontation. It sets his bona fides as a racial sporting pioneer, but it also works to re-assert his masculinity in a traditional way – a way that is not available through the structures of the sport[6]. But, this opening also works to make overt racism “something that happened ‘back then’ and ‘down there,’” framing racism as a thing of the past that we’ve moved beyond [7]. This framing supports a progressive notion of racial history, i.e., Look at how those jerks used to treat black people! Things are so much better now. However, this scene does less of that kind of work because of its similarities to the images of the McKinney, Texas police officer slamming black swimsuit-clad teenagers to the ground.

We meet Jim 10 years later — in post-civil rights era America — on a bus traveling out to the suburbs to apply for a teaching and coaching job at a prestigious private school. Coach and athletic director Mr. Binkowski (Tom Arnold) dismisses Jim’s candidacy because “a person like him” probably couldn’t communicate with the kids at Main Line Academy. Once again, Jim is dismissed out of a white space in which he doesn’t belong.

Disappointed, he takes the only job available to him: working for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR), preparing the Marcus Foster Recreational Center, one of the city’s underused recreation centers, for closure. The Rec Center has fallen into disrepair. Young black men are outside playing basketball on blacktop with chain nets. Their community is filled with junk cars, graffiti, and urban decay. Some men are watching them play while they are sipping on bottles. It is the iconic ghetto conceptualized by sociologist Elijah Anderson, where the ghetto is imagined “as impoverished, chaotic, lawless, drug-infested, and ruled by violence,”[8] and this is the space in which every black body lives in this film.

Black space is very much like the Foster Rec Center; it is decrepit, disregarded, dilapidated. Inside the Foster Center, clocks are broken, windows are boarded up, junk is piled up. The center’s janitor, Elston (Bernie Mac), is introduced watching “his stories” on a tv in an old office. He is lazy and unhelpful while Jim goes about his business packing up and clearing out the trash.

The next morning, a city employee, Sue (one of only two named women characters), officially informs Elston that the place will indeed be shut down, because “the city isn’t going to fund an institution that has no economic worth for the community it serves.” Elston sadly responds, “worth shouldn’t be based on economics.” Sue counters that “this place is a nesting ground for drugs, thugs, and the lowest common denominator.” Elston counters that “this place keeps [people] off the streets.” Sue walks off, past Jim, who witnessed the whole exchange. This exchange sets up the foundational binary of Pride, black men have only two choices: the ghetto or sport.

The next scene reinforces this theme. Jim is outside eating lunch and quietly watching the young men play basketball. He sizes up the neighborhood bad guy, Franklin (who we’ve already learned steals radios, intimidates young men to do things for him, and sells drugs and women). Franklin is set up as Jim’s opposite. This might be more interesting if Franklin was anything more than a cartoon bad guy. Whereas Jim will later be a positive role model for the neighborhood’s young men, Franklin is “the lowest common denominator” positioned as the only other option for these kids; he is the embodiment of Anderson’s Iconic ghetto.

After making eye contact with Franklin, Jim goes inside the Rec Center. Another musical montage plays, juxtaposing images of the guys playing basketball with images of Jim scrubbing the drained pool, fixing the pumps, and then filling the pool with clean water. They are playing in black space while Jim works to clear it out to reveal the pool. The funk music ends, and light instrumental music plays as Jim, clad in his swimsuit, walks out onto the spotless pool deck. He breathes deep, smiles, and then dives into the clean, clear water. He is comfortable in the ordered, cared-for pool. His individual effort has brought order to the black space of the urban recreational center through improvement of the pool.

The city takes down the young men’s basketball rims, forcing the guys to accept Jim’s invitation to swim in the Rec Center. It could be a useful scene for demonstrating how structural opportunities shape sporting participation, or as a way to think about how (lack of) government resources shapes the lived experiences of people. Unfortunately the film squanders the promise of this film by decontextualizing it and treating it simply as a “sad” thing done to them. Jim welcomes them into the pool, under the agreement that they follow the one rule painted on the wall, “NO CLOWNING In or Out of the pool.”

They agree. As Jim exits the pool area, he offers helpful advice to one of the young men; “cup your hands when you swim.” But Andre takes it as an affront and challenges him to a race. Jim soundly beats Andre, earning the guys’ respect. Soon, they are training with him, learning techniques.

After these young black men spend structured, productive time in the orderly pool – which now has lane lines “which are there to keep you from messing everybody else up” – we are brought back to the black space of the ghetto as Andre walks home from the pool. It is dark. 1970s funk is playing. The street is packed with loitering black bodies and immobile cars. There is trash and decay everywhere. Franklin approaches Andre, but he declines to join him; he is beginning to see the benefits of swimming (in white space) as opposed to life in the ghetto (black space).

Soon the team wants to test their swimming prowess against others. Despite Jim’s warnings, they are confident that they’ll be victorious. Jim and Elston are able to get them into a meet at Main Line. After taking their old, battered Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR) bus through the city out to the manicured lawns and expansive homes of the suburbs. They face similar bewildered white crowds at the meet.

They refuse to wear the team speedo suits (which they call “panties”), and cockily refuse Jim’s pleas to take the meet seriously. Hakim loses his shorts during his race and Reggie hits head at the end of the pool. The crowd laughs. One of the guys does a flip off of the blocks, causing Main Line Coach Binkowski and a meet official to tell Jim to “keep his boys in line.” Jim agrees, saying he’s tired of embarrassing himself. Andre, now established as the best swimmer and leader of the team, swims in the last race against an unnamed white Main Line swimmer who tells him “be glad that they took off the cuffs long enough for you to swim, brother.” Andre is closer than expected in the race. So close in fact, that after the turn, the Main Line swimmer kicks Andre in the face, causing him to stop swimming.

He is incensed, and goes after the swimmer once they both get out of the water. Ellis correctly yells that the kick was illegal, while holding back Andre. Tired of what he felt to be disrespectful behavior of the PDR team, Binkowski says that “to get respect, you’ve got to earn it” and it is clear, that Binkowski (and the other whites) don’t feel like the PDR swimmers have earned it.

This meet leads to the turning point of the film, a long speech given by Jim Ellis after the bus ride home. The team is too happy for his liking. They tell him to ease up, because it’s just swimming.

“Swimming? That wasn’t swimming. You know what I saw? I saw a bunch of negroes who thought because they were black that they were better than the other people…You know what also I saw? Some white kids were there too. And they thought the same thing. They thought because they were white they were better than you. And you know what? They were. They proved it today.”

Andre: “Yeah, but they cheated.”

“You know who I thought cheated? You did. You all cheated. Because here you had a golden opportunity to do something special but you pissed the whole thing away because you wouldn’t take it seriously…You see your Rec right there? In a couple months, it’s going to be gone. Do you know why? Because the people it was built for don’t care about it. This is your house. And I tell you something: my life is way too short for me to spend my time around people who don’t care about nothing. So you see your little basketball court there with no hoop? Go play life with no hoop.”

In her analysis of Pride’s contemporaries Remember the Titans, Glory Road, and The Express, Jaime Schultz argues that historical sport films manipulate chronology, create fictionalized characters, manufacture dialogue, and fabricate incidents in order to offer “a particular version of history that paints racism as a thing of the past and gives sports figures an inordinate amount of responsibility for that ostensible progress”[9]. The fictionalized meet at Main Line and Ellis’s manufactured post-meet speech do such work.

His speech is ahistorical, and smacks of 21st century colorblind attitudes. While Ellis is not color-blind in his description of the swimmers, his speech is power-blind. He is aware of color, but he blames both parties of racism and blames the black youth for the closure of the Rec center because they don’t care. He reduces racism to attitudes and behaviors rather than to structures of oppression. It ignores the systematic defunding of urban communities’ recreational opportunities during the mid-20th century[10] and governmental policies enacted to create resource-depleted, ghettoized black communities. It is also in line with contemporary conservative claims that social and economic inequalities are an inherent part of black culture. Whereas Ellis could have helped the team contextualize their experiences and the closure of the Rec Center by discussing the racial history of swimming in America and their city’s use of austerity measures, he blamed them for not caring enough for the opportunity they were given[11].

Regardless, this plea for individual investment in the opportunity given to them captures the team’s attention and Jim wakes up the next morning to the whole team swimming laps, wearing their proper suits. This scene is followed by another montage  showing the team working hard. 

Jim stands up to Franklin, tells him to stay away from his boys. Soon the city allows PDR to host a meet, and people from the neighborhood show up to cheer on the team. Main Line shows up, but the team leaves due to “illness,” leading to a postponement – not a forfeit as the rules suggest. The team decides to swim individual races anyway, and Jim cries proud tears as they each stand up the blocks, raise their fist, say “this is our house, Coach” before diving into the pool. The community cheers. Another montage follows, this time showing the team improving and winning ribbons at meets.

After the team qualifies for the championships in Baltimore, they gain the attention of the media and are embraced by the community. A news reporter comes to interview Ellis, but they discover that the Foster Rec Center has been vandalized. Jim, the reporter, Elston, and the team find Franklin and two of his friends in the pool area. Franklin is urinating into the pool, which enrages Jim. Franklin’s friends rush Jim but he lays them both out. He turns to Franklin and tackles him into the pool, trying to drown him. Finally, Andre jumps in to stop him, saying “he ain’t worth it, Coach.”

Ashamed, Jim calls himself a hypocrite and thinks it’s best to quit. Elston convinces him that he shouldn’t quit on the community, the team, or himself. Ellis goes to the championships, but doesn’t coach because he should be punished. Prior to the meet, he congratulates the team for giving people something to believe in, “Pride…Determination…Resiliency” and that they will do well at the meet because he believes in them too. They swim very well at the meet and, predictably, beat Main Line in the final relay. Their success earns the respect of the unnamed white swimmer who kicked Andre earlier and Coach Binkowski, who shakes Ellis’s hand after the meet while Ellis mouths the words “thank you” to him. Jim, and PDR, has finally earned respect from a white man through individual achievement in sport.

While this film requires much more critical analysis than I am able to do here, I hope I demonstrated how one sport film can act as a pedagogical tool that helps us to construct understandings of the world we live in. These constructions have real consequences — as we saw in the McKinney, Texas. However, although films can be simplistic and regressive in the ideological work that they do, they can also offer new ways of looking at and viewing the world — and critical analysis considering the contexts within which the film is made and viewed can offer such opportunities.

Matthew Hodler is a PhD candidate at Iowa. His favorite sport films are Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Set-Up, and Bull Durham. He thinks that Swimfan (2002) is the worst swimming film ever made.


[1] Schultz, Jaime. (2014). “The Truth about Historical Sport Films,” Journal of Sport History, 41(1), p. 29-46; Baker, Aaron. (2006) Contesting Identities: Sports in American Film, Champaign, IL: UI Press. The “true story” man “inspiring” this film is 2007 Presidential Award winner from the International Swimming Hall of Fame Jim Ellis, who coached the Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR) swimming team from 1971 until 2011 and is currently coaching the Salvation Army Kroc Center.

[2] MacLean, Malcolm. (2014). “Truth and Reality in Screening Sports’ Pasts: Sports Films, Public History, and Truthfulness,” Journal of Sport History, 41(1), p. 47-54; Schultz, “The Truth about Historical Sport Films.”

[3] Schultz, “The Truth about Historical Sport Films,” p. 30 & 31.

[4] Giroux, Henry. (2001). “Breaking Into the Movies,” Journal of American Culture, p. 585.

[5]Giroux, “Breaking Into the Movies,” p. 590.

[6] Swimming’s lane lines and in-water racing against the clock doesn’t really allow for physical confrontation in the ways that football, boxing, or basketball do.

[7] Schultz, “The Truth about Historic Films,” p. 37.

[8] Anderson, Elijah. (2012). “The Iconic Ghetto,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 642, p. 10.

[9] Schultz, “The Truth about Historical Sport Films,” p. 30.

[10] Jeff Wiltse. (2007). Contested Waters: A Social History of Municipal Swimming Pools, Chapel Hill, NC:UNC Press; M. Silk & D.L. Andrews. (2006). “The fittest city in America,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 30(3), 315-327.

[11]The meanings of this being an opportunity “given” to them is also worth thinking about – it erases them as citizens who, through funding the city with their taxes, deserve services from the municipal government. Instead, this community center is given to them, and their neglect makes the city’s decision to close it logical.

One thought on “Learning about black space through film

  1. Pingback: Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 3 Designing Assignments | Sport in American History

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