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'Coach Carter' delivers solid, if cliched, message

If you don't get to church much but are even mildly concerned about the future of urban youth, "Coach Carter" is here to offer well over two hours of secular sermonizing.

Even if not, this by-the-numbers basketball drama might be enough to put the fear of Samuel L. Jackson into you.

As real-life basketball coach and motivational speaker Ken Carter, Jackson barrels through this movie's Richmond, Calif., high school. His simmering performance has two, maybe three notes -- outraged disappointment, outraged joy, and outraged outrage -- but Jackson's been doing vexed long enough to wring emotion out of it. And he obviously believes in this story, which plays like a public service announcement for at-risk kids.

In 1997, Carter, who owned a local sporting goods store, took the position of basketball coach at Richmond High, an underserved school in a majority black and Hispanic community north of Oakland. Carter was a star player for Richmond in the 1970s and saw the job as an opportunity to reverse the team's losing record with a strict, brutally no-nonsense -- sorry, tough love -- approach to coaching.

He had his players sign contracts obliging them to wear jackets and ties on game days, sit at the front of their classes, and maintain a 2.0 grade-point average. Good grades, for him, were a requirement to play because they're key to having a meaningful professional future. So in 1999, when Carter discovered that a quarter of his Richmond Oilers were failing their classes, he famously locked the team out of the gym and canceled games, despite their undefeated record.

In "Coach Carter," the 12 or so players Carter inherits are an aimless band of bickerers who need to be whipped into shape. The coach's fitness (and discipline) regimen consists of push-ups and "suicides" (assaultive sprints from the baseline to half-court), which, over the course of the movie we see often. The players mock Carter's suits (they're churchy), his shiny pate, and his articulation. The team migraine, Timo Cruz (Rick Gonzalez), a pugnacious hothead, even takes a shot at the coach and is promptly manhandled and expelled from the team.

That's on the first day.

But as the hours roll on, we learn that Timo hates his extracurricular life as a drug dealer and sees basketball as a way to stay out of trouble. We see that Carter is such a good coach that his freshman son, Damien (Robert Ri'chard), pulls out of the best school in the area to be led by his father at Richmond. We discover that the star player, Junior Battle (Nana Gbewonyo), is barely literate and that Kenyon Stone (Rob Brown) a premiere student and a genuinely nice guy, has a pregnant girlfriend, played by the R&B songbird Ashanti, whose acting is much better than her dewy videos would lead you to expect.

The movie turns Carter's story into a gritty inner-city epic that's from-the-heart but unoriginal. The elements of urban black drama -- teen pregnancy, street shootings, miffed single parents, the token white character -- are all present. Life in this movie spins in a repetitive cycle: Every screwup is followed with recrimination, then punishment, then reconciliation. And for all the time we spend with these characters, very few of them are brought to life, though Brown and Gonzalez have real worry in their faces.

The director, Thomas Carter (who's not related to Ken), also made the Julia-Stiles-in-the-'hood romance "Save the Last Dance," and he tackles the same themes here, but with a more blatant "save the children" message. And Jackson is the ideal star to deliver a lecture with fire, brimstone, and panache, which he's demonstrated in everything from his DJ in "Do the Right Thing" and reformed hit man in "Pulp Fiction" to the besieged teacher in "187." In "Coach Carter," he delivers a castigating speech on the problem with kids who use the "n" word on each other. Any owner of "Jackie Brown" will recognize the powerful irony in that.

Eventually, Carter's principles get him in trouble with the principal (Denise Dowse), who can't understand why he bothers with the contracts and the lockout. The community also thinks canceling the games is an insult.

But the movie deserves credit for vocalizing a lot of awful, oft-cited numbers about graduation rates and the ratio of black men who attend college compared with those who wind up in jail. The only problem is that "Coach Carter" lays the problem at the feet of parents and a beleaguered school system, without bothering to complicate it.

Like "Crazy" Joe Clark, the New Jersey principal who kicked out a sizable portion of his student body en masse in the 1980s, Carter is a magnet for controversy. And like "Lean on Me," the 1989 movie about Clark's stint as a school official, the coach is always right and everybody else is wrong, wrong, wrong. But the parents and teachers whom Morgan Freeman's righteous Clark would shout down had a point: The man did seem insane. At least you know where Jackson's character is coming from.

My main worry about "Coach Carter," however, is this: Who's it for? How do you put this message across without it seeming medicinal? Sure, MTV is among the movie's producers, but what 11th grader wants to spend a Friday night being hit with such a blunt instrument?

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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