This marks the second film involving race starring Kevin Costner in as many months. Thankfully, McFarland, USA avoids many of the more egregious pitfalls of Black or White, instead touching on some concepts in a way that feels more authentic at times.
The film is yet another in Disney’s line of inspirational sports dramas, and it starts off with Coach Jim White (Costner) giving a motivational speech in a locker room. Only…the students he’s coaching are of the overprivileged white variety. One blatantly ignores the coach, and when White throws a shoe near the kid to get his attention, it bounces off a locker and hits the student in the face. Cut to White and his family packing their belongings and moving to McFarland, California – the only place White can find a gig coaching football.
The plot synopsis describes McFarland as “an economically challenged town.” That’s putting it mildly. The vast majority of the residents, who are almost completely Hispanic, work on large farms, and many students also spend time working alongside their parents when they’re not in school. The joke of a football team McFarland has is coached by someone with less expertise than White, who has to serve as the junior coach. When White notices the speed some of his students can run, though, he comes up with a plan: starting a cross-country team. White’s motivation is made rather clear: the team would not only give White something to do, but if he can coach the team well enough, he may be able to get his family back to a location where they’d feel more comfortable.
Of course, this is a PG-rated Disney-branded film, so obviously White will have a change of heart. What’s surprising about the film, though, is that it tackles the issue of race relations without making White out to be the stereotypical “white savior.” At least not completely. While there are plenty of other white characters more broadly painted as racist, White and his family don’t get a free pass. They show plenty of examples early on of casual racism, the sort that leads plenty of white people to say, “Hey, I’m not a racist – you don’t see me doing that.” And the film calls White out on it. In one memorable scene, after losing their first competition, White has the students run up and down tarp-covered hills for hours. Thomas, the star team member, eventually explodes, showing him that underneath the tarps are mountains of almonds their families spend their days working to pick. The message is clear: White is literally using this town’s hard work for sport. It’s a point of tension the film rarely rises to outside of this scene, but to the film’s credit, it’s certainly acknowledged.
I’m honestly of two minds about this film. I’m glad that the film handles race as well as it does, considering how wrong it so typically goes – see the aforementioned Black or White or Disney’s 2014 sports drama, Million Dollar Arm. I still wish the film had gone the extra mile, though, because the film ultimately centers around White overcoming his prejudices, and while that’s not nothing, there’s more to be gained from exploring why those prejudices even existed for White.