“Now, you’re from Lexington, right?” mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer asked me during an interview for his new movie. “We have a farm in Kentucky,” he said. “Are they going to burn my farm down?” He was half-kidding with a nervous grin.
The movie we had been talking about was Glory Road, an intense and uplifting basketball film that is one part jock-flick and one part social commentary. The reason he was asking about his farm was because the film tells the remarkable story of the 1966 NCAA basketball championship game when the underdog Texas Western Miners beat the powerhouse University of Kentucky Wildcats.
As any sports fan would attest, it’s about time somebody made a film about the most monumental college-basketball game in history. The storyline is phenomenal. The hard-driving Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) takes a team of outcasts from El Paso to the NCAA championship. Haskins put his best players on the court. Adolph Rupp, the coach of the University of Kentucky, did the same. Haskins’s players were all black. Rupp’s were all white.
This was an era of racism, segregation, and bigotry. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. He was assassinated in 1968. This NCAA championship game was played right between these two linchpin events. One writer went so far as to refer to it as the “Brown vs. Board of Education” of college basketball.
The tricky part about making a movie about such a tumultuous time in our nation’s history is avoiding stereotypical caricatures and attempting to stick to the facts. That only seems fair, especially since most of the principle players in this historic drama are still alive.
That is why I was so disappointed in a few major aspects of Glory Road. Two of the most jaw-dropping, tear-jerking racist events in the movie never took place. Look, I know that other horrible events took place that were not portrayed. Nevertheless, the screenwriters did a tremendous disservice by creating composite incidents of the era instead of actually using true-life examples.
“We had to build it and the best way to do it was to have those two incidences represented in a lot of what happened,” responded Bruckheimer to questions about the incidents. “You heard the comments that the players made–the real players at the end of the movie–they went through a lot more than what we demonstrated. But those two incidences were dramatic ‘Hollywood moments’ that we could tell the audience what they were really going through.”
He continued: “I’d say that 80 percent of the movie is pretty accurate.” The troubling aspect about Glory Road is that when viewers discover that the two biggest gut-wrenching moments were “Hollywood moments,” it leaves the audience feeling as though it had been emotionally manipulated.
The truth of the matter was that there were bomb threats at games. Haskins received death threats for his actions. That is the dirty reality. According to one of the screenwriters, there were “50 to 100 incidents” that the Texas Western players suffered. Who would argue with that? Why didn’t they just portray two or three real events?
Two U.K. fans were recently in my office talking about the film. “Well, I am not going to see it. That’s for sure,” one said. The other agreed. They were angry after seeing Glory Road commercials on television with Wildcat fans waving Confederate flags in the background of the game.
The reason Bruckheimer jokingly asked me about the well-being of his farm is because he knows that Kentucky fans are very proud of their basketball legacy and very sensitive about the inflammatory and salacious portrayal of Adolph Rupp has received in the media.
When I asked Jon Voight about his research into playing Rupp, he responded: “I tell ya, I feel he wasn’t a racist. Period. I looked at all of that. It was the time in the south… I’ll tell you what he was. He was a person who had worked from being a very, very poor person to having established himself as a great coach. He found his niche, and he didn’t want to lose it. As a coach he was quite admirable.”
Despite Voight’s superb acting, the story makes it appear that Rupp and his gaggle of players from Kentucky (and their fans) were a bunch of chest-thumping racists. In truth, Rupp had tried unsuccessfully to recruit black players to U.K. long before he was beat in the championship. He attended the white and black high-school basketball tournaments in Kentucky.
Rupp even petitioned the Southeast Conference to integrate the league five years before this match-up. Just like Haskins, Rupp received hate mail from racists who did not believe blacks and whites should play on the same court.
“I think what you try to do is be accurate,” Bruckheimer told me. “And Adolph Rupp was a man of his times, that’s all he was. There were no black athletes playing in the south, period. And it’s not like he didn’t recruit them. He did recruit some. But he was afraid that if he took them to Mississippi they’d really have problems. You know, or Alabama or something, the really radical, racist states. And I think that was a concern of his.”
Glory Road is not about Adolph Rupp. It’s about Don Haskins and his dogged and courageous determination to recruit, train, and play the very best players that he could in El Paso, Texas. Haskins and his players certainly deserve all the glory and credit that comes their way from this film. Despite my criticisms, I was on the edge of my seat even though I knew what was going to happen. How do you avoid cheering for the Miners?
According to actor Josh Lucas, Haskins was a complex man. “He’s very powerful. He can be an absolute son of a bitch. He can be the most difficult, even rage-filled human beings you’ve been around. But he also has this other total completely tasteful, funny, compassionate, charismatic side. And so you try to figure out the balance between the two. Particularly anything to do with basketball, he’s pretty much as difficult as they get. I mean, if you know anything about Bobby Knight, talk about him being more complex and more difficult that Bobby Knight.”
Perhaps you look at Glory Road like Lucas looked at Haskins–figuring out the balance of two extremes. More than just another sports film, Glory Road could inspire viewers to brush up on the history of sports in relation to the civil-rights movement. This is an intense film about an outstanding group of athletes face tremendous challenges on the road to victory.
– Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.org–a website devoted to faith and pop culture.