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Photograph by Tracy Bennett

Net Gain: The student athletes at Richmond High School get some lesson plans from Samuel L. Jackson in 'Coach Carter.'

Hoop, There It Is

'Coach Carter': Richmond, town without pity

By Richard von Busack

Ever since the first producer said, "A rock is a rock, a tree is a tree, shoot it in Griffith Park," Los Angeles has posed as the world. Even so, I object to the producers of Coach Carter trying to re-create Richmond in Los Angeles. I've lived in or around Richmond for a decade, and the vibe of the place is different from L.A. in a number of ways--the light, the small houses, the way rich and poor mix, how the noise of trains is always part of the audio texture.

While you could argue that all urban American ghettos have the same music and clothes, there is a difference in the look of every one of them.

And when you're making the nth version of the story of the hard-boiled teacher who cares a lot for his wayward, urban students, some visual distinction could have helped. Crying that the money wasn't available is no excuse. This is the kind of situation that digital cameras were created to fix.

Coach Carter is an account by director Tom Carter (no relation to the coach) of how Richmond High School's basketball coach Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) made national news when he locked up the gym after he learned that members of his 13-0 basketball team were flunking their classes.

The lockout only lasted eight days, but Carter made the point that his student athletes needed to learn. What he insisted on--a C+ average--was meant to get his players college scholarships, even with what would certainly be low SAT scores.

Among the teammates is Kenyan (Rob Brown, star of Finding Forrester), who finds himself torn between his duty to his pregnant girlfriend (the singer Ashanti) and the possibility of them breaking up if he accepts a scholarship. (The scholarship is to Cal State Sacramento, about an hour's drive from Richmond and a less-expensive city to live in.)

Rick Gonzalez plays Tino Cruz, the attitude-ridden kid whom Carter turns from a punk into a man. There isn't much in the way of female characters: a fictionalized principal who, unlike the real principal Haidee Foust-Whitmore, objects to Carter's plan; and we see a vague love interest (Debbi Morgan) whom Carter promises to take on a Mexican vacation. Since there is no vacation, they must have cut the obligatory scene where duty makes him break this promise. When the camera probes two suburban girls stripping to their underwear at a pool party, it's more proof this movie is strictly for the boys.

Coach Carter is a slightly unique variation on the high school basketball story. The ending has its integrity, but director Carter has blanded up the movie and stretched it out.

Jackson has played this part so often that his attention wanders. He cruises through the action, whipping off his glasses to make a point or a flashing a mean smile when he thinks of some new way to discipline his team with astronomical amounts of pushups. In something like Coach Carter, Jackson can only persist, thinking, "This movie is all for the good of the audience."

Coach Carter (PG-13), directed by Thomas Carter, written by March Schwahn and John Gatins, photographed by Sharon Meir and starring Samuel L. Jackson, opens Friday at selected theaters. Metro Santa Cruz staff writer Richard von Busack also appears on Santa Cruz Community Television's 'CinemaScene.'

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From the January 12-19, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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