Jerry Bruckheimer’s college basketball companion to Remember the Titans, Glory Road tells the story of the underdog Texas Western University men’s basketball team that won the National Championship in 1966 while starting, for the first time in NCAA history, five African-American players. Occurring in the midst of the burgeoning civil rights movement, the Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) squad—forced to persevere in a racist Southern culture—became a symbol of blacks’ adversity and equality, and as befitting a Disney-fied version of events, first-time director James Gartner milks their legend for every last ounce of clichéd uplift, concocting his mundanely inspirational film with some Motown flavor, a few race-specific confrontations between the players and both their white teammates and vicious locales, and a heaping of speechy oration about the value of discipline, discipline, discipline.
Whereas Texas Western’s true-life triumph over Kentucky (and their intolerant head coach Adolph Rupp, played with hunched-over supremacist hatred by Jon Voight under a prosthetic nose and ears) remains one of the most enduring examples of sports’ ability to help bridge social segregation, the film’s adherence to hackneyed tropes and overblown rhetoric borders on regressive. With black and white characters alike learning cross-cultural lessons (the coach about needing to allow a bit of streetball showboating, the African-Americans about the necessity of learning court fundamentals, the Caucasians that “bad” can also mean “good,” etc.), what results is a disingenuous and disrespectful reduction of the difficult, often-painful plight of the team’s seven black athletes into a rousing fairy tale where everyone overcomes personal and societal demons, finds friendship and love, and walks off into the sunset via stirring postscript title cards.
Such artificiality, however, is the name of Glory Road‘s game, from its sweetly nostalgic cinematography (epitomized by magic-hour sunlight poring through a gym’s windows to illuminate the dust in the air) to its one-dimensionally noble characterization of coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas, solid despite a stream of idiosyncratic down-home sayings) and its climactic contest’s unrealistic resemblance to an NBA all-star exhibition, chockablock with modern behind-the-back passes, reverse dunks, and—to win the championship, no less—a laughable alley-oop slam off the backboard that reeks of period-detail-be-damned target audience pandering.