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The coach

As inner-city swim coach , Terrence Howard mentors black youth in 'Pride'

Coach Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) with swimmers (from left) Willie (Regine Nehy), Reggie (Evan Ross), Hakim (Nate Parker), Walt (Alphonso McAuley), Puddin Head (Brandon Fobbs), and Andre (Kevin Phillips) in "Pride." (SAEED ADYANI (FAR LEFT); KIMBERLEY FRENCH (CENTER); TRACY BENNETT)

Listen up, black youth of America. Here comes this month's public-service melodrama made for everybody but with you specifically in mind. It's called "Pride," and, while it's neither as socially urgent as "Freedom Writers" nor as danceable and soapy as "Stomp the Yard," it's better acted and tougher to resist.

Terrence Howard stars as Jim Ellis, a former competitive swimmer who, after being turned down for a private-school teaching job, winds up stationed at the practically condemned Marcus Foster recreation center in 1974 Philadelphia.

It should be a demoralizing assignment (the place looks like a set from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" ), but after he discovers an indoor pool on the premises and some aimless kids to do laps in it, things start to look up. Debunking the myth that black people don't swim, he transforms the five apathetic boys roughhousing on the rec center's basketball court, and the one innately talented girl, into championship swimmers.

Obviously, "Pride" is too clichéd to be based on anything but a true story, however loosely. Like other recent feel-great sports stories of at-risk kids mentored into self-belief (see "Coach Carter" or "Gridiron Gang "), "Pride" is only a little bit about sport. Adequately directed by Sunu Gonera , a South African in his debut, the movie is also about reminding certain people in the audience that, in the immortal words of Jesse Jackson , "They are. Somebody."

Of course, in other such movies (including last spring's cruelly ignored "Akeelah and the Bee" ), the kids are crippled by low self-esteem. In "Pride," cockiness is a defense mechanism against any inferiority complex, and the movie excels at dramatizing how arrogance can be just as destructive as self-doubt. The team arrives at its first meet, out in Philadelphia's upper-crusty Main Line , with a chip on its shoulder. Will they beat these white boys? Of course: They're black. Oops. The meet is a disaster.

One of the coaches (Tom Arnold ), the very one who for racist reasons refused to hire Ellis to teach, is condescending, and the white swimmers hurl insults. But the Marcus Foster kids are out of their depth in a way that has little to do with racism. They're just under-prepared. Some smartass preppie asks the black swimmers if they're the Harlem Globetrotters. Sadly, on this day they're the Washington Generals.

After the rout, the Marcus Foster kids make jokes on the bus ride home. "We just clowning," one of the kids says, opting for a tellingly loaded word choice. Coach Ellis and his assistant, the rec center's crusty janitor (Bernie Mac , wonderfully mellow), are bewildered. As Ellis, Howard uses the occasion to give a tough but tender monologue meant to shame his athletes into having some pride.

It's one of those well-delivered speeches you don't soon forget, not so much for what it says (although that's important) but for the wounded manner in which it's delivered. Ellis isn't just angry. He's hurt that his team doesn't care about self-respect. Giving that speech breaks his heart, and it breaks ours watching him do it.

Howard is usually the best thing about whatever he's in. Based on a lot of what's on his resume, that shouldn't be saying much. But bad material doesn't faze him. He's so much better than a lot of his more famous peers. He'll commit to anything. Of course, the man who stole "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " and won an Oscar nomination for playing a rapping pimp in "Hustle & Flow" is giving the "have some self-respect" speech. Howard is the utmost professional, the picture of pride.

Here his work is cut out for him. The script is straight from the urban sports drama starter kit, which is probably being used right now to bring us the story of an all-black lacrosse team or a young black chess champ. Ellis and his charges don't just have to contend with racism. They have to survive both the local drug dealer (Gary Anthony Sturgis, playing Denzel Washington's part in "Training Day" the way Ronald Isley might) and the city's determination to close the center. On that front, the movie gives us Kimberly Elise. Not only is her character the sister of one of the swimmers, Hakim (Nate Parker ), she's also the councilwoman persuaded to help keep Marcus Foster open.

Elise and Howard have a few scenes together that emit a sexual charge, and feeling the connection I was desperate to see them in another movie, playing people carrying a different sort of weight of the world. Here they're doing a community service, often tearfully. (These two have the leakiest eyes in Hollywood. Anything could get them to well up.)

What "Pride" fails to do is establish these people, especially the kids, as more than emblems of uplift. The young actors playing them -- Parker, Kevin Phillips , Alphonso McAuley , Evan Ross , Brandon Fobbs , and Regine Nehy -- are charismatic. But the screenplay gives them all the same attitude about everything. When Howard presents the tight swim trunks they're supposed to compete in, everybody refuses, showing up at that first meet in street shorts and cut-offs. They share a brain.

Like many of these movies -- "Freedom Writers" and "Akeelah" are exceptions -- the social concerns in "Pride" turn the kids themselves into one-note afterthoughts. So, dramatically speaking, even when they win, they lose.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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