Buried deep beneath the cliched inspirational speeches, typical "Time-Life Classic Soul of the '70s" soundtrack and star Terrence Howard's copious tears is the real-life story of Jim Ellis, an out-of-work college grad turned hero who, amid the everyday despair of ghetto life, saved an endangered community recreation center and founded Philly's first African-American swim team.
Philadelphia, 1973: Once a promising collegiate swimmer who slugged a cop after a racist melee at a North Carolina swim meet, Jim Ellis (Howard) has landed in the City of Brotherly Love looking for work. Coach "Bink" (Tom Arnold) of the snooty suburban Mainline Academy has made it clear that "a person like yourself" a person of color could never "communicate" with Mainline's (white) students. So Jim takes the only job the unemployment office has to offer: clearing out the dilapidated Marcus Foster Recreation Center in preparation for its impending demolition. Now overseen by grouchy maintenance man Elston (Bernie Mac), who's more interested in soap operas than doing his job, the center was once an important part of the community life of Nicetown, the rundown, predominantly black North Philly neighborhood whose cheerful name belies rampant poverty and crime. It's now a storefront for dealers and pimps like Franklin (Gary Anthony Sturgis), and the only kids who use the center for nondrug-related recreation Andre (Kevin Phillips), Hakim (Nate Parker), Walt (Alphonso McAuley), Puddin Head (Brandon Fobbs) and little Reggie (Evan Ross) are playing basketball outside in the summer heat. Inspired by the sight of the center's old, empty pool, Ellis scrubs it down, fills it up and invites the kids for a swim. Within weeks they've coalesced into the city's first African-American team and are ready to take on established rivals like, yes, Mainline Academy. But the real challenges facing team PDR, which Ellis announces no longer stands for "Philadelphia Department of Recreation" but "Pride," "Determination" and "Resilience," are convincing city councilwoman Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise), Hakim's sister, that the doomed rec center is a valuable community asset while proving to themselves that they can truly function as a team.
Howard bravely dons a Speedo and proves once again that he's a good actor who can cry at the drop of a hat. But sadly, the only aspect of this well-intentioned film that doesn't feel completely formulaic is its refreshingly unromantic picture of an inner-city neighborhood in the early '70s: Life in Nicetown is hard and very, very poor. Every impassioned speech about pride and teamwork feels as though it has been pulled whole from other movies, while every reaction shot or sassy statement of fact is punctuated by one of many hits of the era, from "Strawberry Letter 23" and "Express Yourself" to "I'll Take You There." Surely there are better, more original ways of telling such important stories. leave a comment --Ken Fox