TJ Martin at Western Washington University

“You think football builds character. It does not. Football reveals character,” said coach Bill Courtney of the Manassas Tigers in the introduction to the documentary “Undefeated.”

After winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 84th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, Western alumni and co-director of “Undefeated” TJ Martin returned to campus on March 1 for a special screening of his award-winning film. It was the first time “Undefeated” was shown in Washington state.

Take the themes of struggle, hardship, resilience and overcoming adversity that are so often featured in classic football films, strip down their high-budget, and scripted Hollywood façade and what you get is “Undefeated.” This film is a glimmering representation of not only the trials and tribulations of a struggling team, but a raw, emotional glimpse into some of the players’ lives as they progress through a season.

“Ostensibly, it’s a football film but it’s much more of a human-interest piece,” Martin said. “The themes that are explored in the film are much more universal.”

“Undefeated” takes viewers through an entire season of Northern Memphis, Tennessee Manassas High School footballas the team tries to win their first play-off game in the school’s 110-year history.

Even off the field, loss is a common word for the Tiger team. The film showcases the personal lives and stories of three players. Whether it is through senior right tackle O.C. Brown’s educational issues in the pursuit of a college scholarship, senior right tackle Montrail “Money” Brown’s dealing with a lost father and mid-season injury, or through junior lineman Chavis’s overcoming of aggression and establishing team compassion, “Undefeated” exceptionally explores the complex interworking of an underprivileged, underfunded, intercity football team.

“There are some really emotional and life-changing things that transpire in front of the camera and it was really important for us to be there for those moments,” Martin said. “I think it’s rare these days to find the type of emotional intimacy that is found in this film and I think that’s why it stands out.”

A critical character of the documentary is coach Courtney. By being a dedicated, brutally honest coach and a father figure to his team, Courtney continually guides players in the right direction when they falter.

He goes out of his way to ensure the stability and progress of his team athletically, educationally and morally. Watching Courtney touch the lives of the Manassas players throughout the film is a highlight of “Undefeated” and provides truly tear-jerking and emotional moments as he reaches the end of the season and resigns as coach.

Assembled from more than 500 hours of footage filmed on handheld cameras, Martin and co-director Dan Lindsay managed to capture and compile a story, completely void of narrative, which unfolds itself in a more precise, story-driven way than most big production feature films.

“The film is structured and the presentation of the film feels like you are watching a scripted film,” Martin said. “It unfolds like a scripted film to the point where people oftentimes forgot that they were watching a documentary.

You do not have to be a football fan to enjoy this movie.

Martin and his fellow acceptance partners were cut short during their speech at the Academy Awards. While they were able to thank producers and people involved in the creation of the film, Martin said they were saving the most important people for last.
“The reality is that the success of this film is 100 percent a testament to the individuals of North Memphis who trusted us in telling their stories,” Martin said. “It hurt a little bit that we didn’t get the opportunity to say that.”

After the credits rolled in the Performing Arts Center theater, TJ Martin was able to deliver this message and thank the community of North Memphis, uninterrupted, Oscar in hand, to a standing, applauding crowd.