The way an actor sounds is as important as how he looks, and Terrence Howard, given the force and directness of most of his characters, has a way of catching you off guard with what a delicately intense, satin-soft instrument his voice is. His gaze may be steady as a rock, but when he talks, there’s a hint of a quaver — almost a shadow memory of tears. In Hustle & Flow, he gave that dime-store Memphis pimp a lazy, caressing smokehouse drawl, the kind that could nudge an invitation into a threat (or vice versa). Now, in Pride, a strategical gearshift of a movie set in Philadelphia in 1974, he takes on the role of one of those inspirational tough-love sports coaches, and Howard, once again, commands through quiet, summoning the gentle music of a man who is literally trying to find his power as he speaks. (Or maybe the fact that he’s quiet is the real sign of power.) That tremulous baritone isn’t weak; it’s what makes Howard’s strength human. He uses it to invest the film with so much casual discovery and verve that it’s as if this sort of role had never been invented before.
The actor wears long sideburns, a domesticated guidance-counselor Afro, and the inevitable array of plaid jackets and slacks to play Jim Ellis, a real-life swim coach (the film is based on a true story) who, in the early ’70s, founded the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swimming team. After being turned down for a job at a local white high school, Ellis wanders into the Marcus Foster Recreation Center. The place is as junky and useless as something out of Escape From South Philly — it’s a playground of trashed dreams — and the kids shooting hoops on the netless outdoor court razz him like he’s some uptight Negro alien. Inside, there’s a swimming pool, but even that’s overwhelmed by the clutter of abandonment. The degraded setting is the inner city in limbo, caught between the twilight of the civil rights era and the dawn of hip-hop, and that blasted physical space works for the movie. Pride really is about the audacity of hope. It’s not that Ellis has to sow these kids with the values of a noble institution. He has to create the institution, building it from the ragged ground up, and that, along with Howard’s reflective, almost melancholy performance, makes Pride more organic than the usual cookie-cutter sports-montage movie.
As Ellis molds the ghetto kids into a swim team, the film isn’t exactly big on showing you the nuts and bolts of how they learn the butterfly stroke. I would have liked more detail, but where the director, Sunu Gonera, is shrewd is in parsing, from every angle, the emotions of the title. When the P.D.R. crew face off against a privileged white team (their coach is played by a convincingly jerky Tom Arnold), they botch the meet by messing around, and you feel the wounded arrogance of their ill-disciplined antics. By the end, of course, they’re oozing self-respect. Bernie Mac, as the rec center’s janitor, earns laughs by turning gibes into folk wisdom. Pride doesn’t have much surprise, but it’s a formula picture of genuine feeling, with Terrence Howard proving once again that he wouldn’t know how to keep it less than real.