In Coach Carter, Samuel L. Jackson plays one of those sternly compassionate inner-city teacher-demigods who have been a staple of movies for half a century, ever since Glenn Ford took over the leather-jacketed class of The Blackboard Jungle (1955). It isn’t difficult to see why this genre has persisted: Corny as it often is, there’s a built-in gratification to watching a fearless and indomitable educational hero draft order out of chaos, winning over the troubled hearts and minds of kids who don’t believe in themselves.
As Ken Carter, a self-made sporting-goods-store owner who returns to his alma mater of Richmond High — where he was the star hoopster 30 years ago — in order to whip the basketball team into shape, Jackson is playing a coach, a drill sergeant, and a tough-love academic whip-cracker rolled into one. The actor wears blocky ornate ties and beautifully cut suits that never quite let you forget his height, and he sports the jutting shaved dome that he brandished in Shaft and the Star Wars films. That shiny imposing head is all too appropriate, since Jackson’s Carter is a stoic Jedi guru of discipline.
The moment he strolls onto the court, facing down a team of slovenly, aggressive misfits who (the film suggests) have grown up with too much hip-hop and not enough self-respect, Jackson rules the movie with his joyful inflections; he uses the nimble music of his voice to turn threats into play. It’s fun to see Carter dole out the punishment of hundreds of push-ups and ”suicides” each time a team member dares to be late or, even worse, mouth off about it. For Coach Carter, however, it’s not enough for the Richmond Oilers to find victory on the court. He insists that the players all sign contracts in which they agree to maintain 2.3 grade point averages; if they don’t, they won’t play. Eventually, when they are most of the way through an undefeated season but failing to fulfill that classroom bargain, he padlocks the gym and forces the Oilers to forfeit games until they get their academic act together. Suddenly, the city of Richmond, which had rallied behind Carter’s success, wants his head.
Coach Carter is based on a true story (the real Ken Carter locked out his team in 1999), but is there anything in movies less convincing than a high-school-ne’er-do-wells-get-down-and-study montage? It’s a trick, admittedly, to show people learning math — though Stand and Deliver (1988) made feisty drama out of it. The overly long and facile Coach Carter doesn’t; it presents as a victory of inspiration something that is, by nature, 90 percent perspiration. Jackson, though, does lend this earnest formula flick a core of conviction. It’s actually his second teacher movie (after the misbegotten 187). Perhaps he’ll eventually find one worthy of his voice.