Get our free newsletter
Howand whyDisney distorts what happened in Northern Virginia’s Titan-ic town.
In Remember the Titans, Walt Disney Pictures’ uplifting new true-life drama, a high school football star in a small Southern town must overcome his own bigotry when his all-white school is suddenly integrated with an all-black school. It’s a struggle, but Gerry Bertier is no quitter. He establishes himself as a leader in both football and race relations as his undefeatable team teaches the town’s racist elders lessons in decency and understanding. Then, just before the championship game, Bertier’s car is crushed by a careless driver’s truck and the athlete is permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
It’s the kind of scene that touches something deep inside you. I, for example, couldn’t stop laughing.
OK, so there are a few things you should know about what Remember the Titans depicts: The small Southern town was, in fact, the upscale, mostly liberal-minded Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va. The year was 1971, seven years after the city actually integrated its public schools. Bertier, apparently drunk, was paralyzed in a single-car crash a week after the T.C. Williams Titans ended their season by winning the state championship.
One more fact: Bertier and I were both members of the T.C. Williams class of 1972.
Nobody wants to hear someone else’s high school stories, but the tale of the T.C. Williams class of 1972 is a good one. There are many compelling aspects to the saga, even if producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Boaz Yakin, and scripter Gregory Allen Howard threw most of them away in making the almost entirely fictional Remember the Titans.
Before the 1971-1972 school year, Alexandria had three high schools, none of them segregated by law. Their racial balance, however, reflected the city’s demographics: George Washington, on the east, had a higher proportion of African-American students; Hammond, on the west, had almost none. T.C. Williams, the most centrally located, roughly reflected the city’s school-age population, which was approximately 20 percent “nonwhite.” (At the time, that meant mostly African-American; the large Latino and Asian populations of today’s Alexandria had yet to arrive.)
In 1971, under pressure from the federal government, the Alexandria school system adopted the “6-2-2-2” plan. (There were many other names for it, but most of them were not officially sanctioned.) Elementary schools would comprise Grades 1 through 6, and middle schools Grades 7 and 8; GW and Hammond were to become junior high schools, serving 9th and 10th graders, while all 11th and 12th graders would go to T.C. Williams, which, ironically, was named after a prominent Alexandria school segregationist. The scheme meant that two-thirds of the city’s 1972 seniors would be graduating from a high school they didn’t consider their own. Some of them didn’t like the idea at all.
“The city was on the verge of an explosion,” a narrator somberly intones over Remember the Titans’ introductory sequence, which features phony documentary footage designed to evoke Little Rock, Ark., and Montgomery, Ala., in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In 1971 Alexandria, however, much of the turmoil was over such momentous issues as class rings and the editorship of the yearbook. In fact, for the 1971-1972 school year, T.C. Williams had three yearbook editors, three senior class presidents, and three of just about anything else that had been chosen the year before at three different high schools. The student government was run by a troika and could properly have been called a “soviet.” Those of us who observed the arrangements sardonically saw great potential in what we called the Great Experimentbut more for comic operetta than earnest drama.
Some of the unhappiness among students and parents surely reflected racial enmity. Yet Alexandria simply wasn’t the rigidly segregated, racially polarized city that Remember the Titans smugly depicts. Parents didn’t riot outside the school on opening day the way they do in the movie”Schools opened without incident today,” reported the Sept. 7, 1971, Alexandria Gazetteand there were no downtown restaurants that didn’t serve African-Americans like the one the movie’s quarterback (a recent arrival from California) ruefully discovers. That barrier had fallen in Alexandria in 1960, when four local retailersPeoples Drug, Drug Fair, Kann’s, and Lansburgh’sannounced that they would henceforth follow the same policies in Northern Virginia that they did in D.C. and Maryland. By the way, coach Herman Booneglamorously impersonated in the film by no less than Denzel Washingtonwas not brought to town in mid-1971 to drill the Titans in football and self-respect, as the film has it; Boone was my phys-ed teacher two years before the events garbled in the movie.
Of course, these sorts of historical distortions are standard for Hollywood movies that beginas Remember the Titans doeswith the ominous words “Based on a True Story.” Still, depicting 1971 Alexandria as a cracker-crusted backwater is quite a stretch. The parents of my fellow Alexandria public-school students helped plan the Great Society, worked to enforce civil rights and equal-employment-opportunity laws, and insisted on the innocence of Alger Hiss. The year after I graduated, one of these concerned parents took his two teenage sons, former friends of mine, on a little excursion: They shot up a local bank and then fled to Cuba to escape the racist, imperialist United States.
Did I mention that the year was 1971?
Remember the Titans doesn’t merely slime Alexandria as a suburb of Mississippi Burning. It also completely misrepresents the tenor of the times. I never attended a Titans game, and neither did any of my friends who weren’t required to go as student journalists. But I did spend several weekends marching Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall to protest the war in Vietnam. Student deferments had been eliminated, and Nixon’s alleged plan to end the war wasn’t working, so half the T.C. Williams student body was expecting to take an expenses-paid trip to Southeast Asia in the next few years. Some of them thought of football, but others contemplated jail or Canada. A few pondered the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. At the time, the SDS was formidable competition for the NFL.
At Disney’s T.C. Williams, the new California-bred quarterback shocks his peers by having long blond locks. At the real one, by 1971, all the football players had long hair, whether lank or shagged or Afro’d. The jocks had even started smoking pot, although they were still known for binge drinking. Indeed, I don’t remember ever hearing Bertier’s name until after his crash, when he became the subject of much cruel banter among my college-bound, football-hating peers. To us, getting drunk and smashing up your car was characteristically brainless jock behavior. (That Bertier was drunk that night was widely accepted by his detractors at the time, but I can’t prove it: The Alexandria Gazette’s Page One report didn’t offer a reason for his 2 a.m. solo wreck, and Bertier is unavailable for comment. He was killed in another crash a decade later. According to the movie’s summation, that one wasn’t his fault, either.)
The movie clangs with false notes. Bertier’s girlfriend has a Deep South drawl. Coach Yoast, the veteran Boone replaces, lives in a rustic shack. A white football player attempting to bond with a new black teammate plays him country music. (The Untitled-era Byrds did play at T.C., but in the age of Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Santana, old-line country music was out of the question.) In his hospital bed, Bertier watches the Titans’ final game on TV. (What channel is he watching? Proto-ESPN?) The script can’t even make sense of its own premises: Yoast brags that his previous team won the “city title” (which would have been no great challenge in a city that supposedly only had two high schools, barred by Jim Crow from playing each other).
In their quest to provide a moral lesson for America, Disney and the filmmakers are no doubt sincere. (Yakin’s previous efforts, Fresh and A Price Above Rubies, were extremely sincere.) At a screening last monthin Washington, not AlexandriaBruckheimer introduced the movie as one treating a topic so momentous that he felt compelled to abandon his customary high-decibel action-flick approach. Bruckheimer, Yakin, and Howard may even believe that much of the film is true, although they had to go to Georgia to find locations to stand in for Alexandria, which doesn’t look much like a small Southern town these daysand didn’t in 1971, either.
Yet I couldn’t help but notice how convenient the movie’s message is. It doesn’t propose that teenagers change their world through politics, education, rock music, or psychedelic drugsthe principal interests of my high school friends in 1971but through something that’s much more easily conformed to commercial interests: football. In Vietnam-era Alexandria, football was not “a way of life,” as the film’s introduction asserts, but if that were true, how useful for Disney, the owner of ESPN, ABC TV and radio, professional sports teams, and a regional sports cable channel.
If you want a reliable income stream, it’s much better to own the rights to “a way of life” than to just another entertainment option. And, at a time when professional athletes have never been more crime-prone nor team owners more mercenary, when it’s been established that even the Olympics organizers are on the take, Disney has good reason to be looking for a story of football as a moral force.
“History is written by the winners” is the tagline on Remember the Titans’ poster. It’s a curious choice, given that the phrase is usually used to remind us of the underdogs whose stories have been forgotten or suppressed by imperial scribes. Football and Disney, now the world’s second-largest media company, are indeed the victors. If the latest crop of teen movies is accurate, all the things that skeptical early-’70s high-schoolers rejectedfootball, the prom, Top 40 radioare stronger than ever. The possibility that kids might make their own world, rather than simply buy the one that’s marketed to them, is more of a fringe notion now than it was then.
On the other hand, Nixon resigned, the Vietcong won, and the draft was shut down before many members of the T.C. Williams class of 1972 could be called up. Now there’s an inspirational story of victorious early-’70s underdogs that Disney might consider bringing to the big screen. Of course, Disney didn’t really want a story from that unruly early periodwhich is why Remember the Titans is part 1960, part 2000, and mostly a hymn to the supposed moral power of the corporation’s contemporary media products. CP