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Friday, March 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Pride" | Retread sports story still has emotional pull

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Pride," with Terrence Howard, Bernie Mac, Tom Arnold. Directed by Sunu Gonera, from a screenplay by Kevin Michael Smith, Michael Gozzard, J. Mills Goodloe and Norman Vance Jr.

104 minutes. Rated PG for thematic material, language including some racial epithets, and violence. Several theaters.

Terrence Howard's unforced charisma did a lot for "Crash" and "Hustle & Flow," and he's the chief reason "Pride" is worth catching.

Based on the life of Philadelphia swimming coach Jim Ellis, this inspirational sports drama may feel like a retread, but there's no denying the passion that Howard brings to a scene. And he's in almost all of them, including a tense prologue that stirs memories of the worst elements of segregation.

South African director Sunu Gonera brings a strong sense of outrage to the scenes that dramatize racism, especially that opener, when the very young and very brave Ellis dares to dive into a pool reserved for whites. He might as well be Jackie Earle Haley in "Little Children," aggressively humiliated by people in swimsuits who will not share the water with him.

Years later, in the 1970s, segregation is shown to be less obvious, but Gonera demonstrates that it could be just as destructive. Rejected by a condescending coach (Tom Arnold), then forced to accept a lemon of a job at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation, Ellis makes tangy lemonade from his situation, urging a gang of local African-American athletes to compete for the state championships.

One boy is a stutterer, susceptible to playground bullies and a local drug dealer who uses a wrecked radio to persuade him to become a criminal. Another boy skips school in order to swim; this alienates his sister, a councilwoman (Kimberly Elise) who threatens to close down the pool.

While the characters may be based on reality, they come off as types, designed to steer the plot in the most predictable of directions. Bernie Mac, as the recreation-center caretaker, provides ingratiating if all-too-familiar comic relief.

Despite the contributions of four screenwriters, the script fails to demonstrate just how this disorganized group of athletes achieves anything. Ellis teases them about their macho games and street language and he shames them into admitting they're not ready for their first serious contest with all-white competition, but it's difficult to believe that his disciplinary actions or his pep talks will lead to victory.

Still, when Howard openly weeps as the team becomes a team — and when Aaron Zigman's score swells shamelessly — most audiences will find it hard to resist the emotional pull of "Pride." Gonera taps into just enough ugly truths about American apartheid to give the film a welcome dose of authenticity.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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