Credit: Glory Road: Frank Connor

When the final buzzer rings in Glory Road, it’s not enough that the all-black starting lineup of underdog Texas Western Miners beats the all-white juggernaut University of Kentucky Wildcats to win the 1966 NCAA basketball championship; that story is available in any sports history book. No, when the last swollen chord of hallelujah music fades at the end of this hammily righteous sports-as-life drama, racial equality has slam-dunked a victory over bigotry, nothing less. Integrated teamwork has triumphed over ignorant racism. And we the people of a kinder, gentler, more tolerant 21st-century America are invited to congratulate ourselves on all just getting along with far more sophistication than our forebears in the archaic days of the 1960s. Remember the Titans? Forget about them! Here’s a new Jerry Bruckheimer production that places its secular faith in an almighty audience appetite for underdogs, sports, and dramas in which wrongs are righted by good-looking Americans while Mahalia Jackson warbles ”I’m On My Way to Canaan.”

Such is the earnest populist intent and crass fancy-footing of a movie that giddily appropriates ”glory” in its title — a declaration of magnificence lifted from Edward Zwick’s Oscar-winning 1989 historical drama about black soldiers in the Civil War. When coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas, humbly beefy) moves to underfunded Texas Western University, having previously trained high school girls, his eyes are on the prize of a Division I championship, not civil rights, and he recruits his African-American players for their athletic talent, not out of personal righteousness.

Still, it’s only just a jump shot or two before Glory Road (a feature film debut by commercial director James Gartner) settles into its rudimentary, music-cued rhythms of classroom civics lessons punctuated by on-court action. The exhausting drills and tough love with which Haskins disciplines his crew (the white boys on the team are nice but hopeless squares) echo the techniques of Kurt Russell’s Coach Herb Brooks in Miracle, but this time it’s not the barbarian Soviets as adversaries; it’s a bunch of scowling U. of Kentucky boys, led by arrogant, hatchet-faced coach Adolph Rupp. (Jon Voight plays the old SOB wearing prosthetic ears seemingly modeled on LBJ’s famous flappers.)

Aside from star player Bobby Joe Hill (Friday Night Lights‘ Derek Luke), who defies training rules to court a sweet gal (Tatyana Ali), the players themselves, both black and white, are an interchangeable bunch: One represents the philosophy of Malcolm X, another that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a third explains to a honky teammate that ”bad” means ”good” in black slang, etc. Indeed, the most memorable characters, for all the wrong reasons, include a caricature of a large, slap-upside-the-head black mama of one athlete who’s slacking at his studies and the tearful ”let my boy play” mother of another with a heart condition.

”Your dignity’s inside you!” Haskins preaches to his boys in the dribbling script by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. But in case dignity isn’t enough, Glory Road turns to Martha & the Vandellas singing ”Dancing in the Street” to score points. Glory Road‘s eyes are on the prize of showbiz.

Glory Road
  • Movie
  • 106 minutes