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Write What You Love: Friday Night Lights

2011 July 21

Team BadRep were sent a writing prompt last month: What is your favourite film or TV series, and why? If it’s what you’d call ‘feminist-friendly’, what about it appealed? If it isn’t, how does that work for you, and are there nonetheless scenes, characters and so on that have stayed with you and continue to occupy a soft spot for you as a feminist pop culture adventurer?

Alright then, Friday Night Lights (the film, not the TV series). It’s the true-ish (true in as much as any Hollywood adaptation of real events is ever true) story of the 1988 Permian Panthers, a highschool American football team based out of Odessa, Texas. Based on the book of the same name by H.G. Bassinger, it’s really quite an amazing depiction of the levels of pressure placed on young players in a town that has nothing else going for it. Odessa is the sort of town where you get into college with a football scholarship, or you stay there and live out the same life your parents did.

It might be a somewhat unusual choice for this site, given that it’s focused entirely on the macho-tastic world of American football, and features less than a handful of female characters – all defined by their relationship to one of the males (the coach’s wife, the quarterback’s mother) – who get maybe 10 lines in total. But stick with me here, because the film does raise a few issues worth discussing.

First up, let’s just cover why this film counts as a favourite. American football, more than perhaps any other sport, is self-mythologising. It builds up a grand narrative, spins out legends, and casts itself as something more than just a bunch of millionaires in armour running into each other. Go watch a highlight video, or an episode of America’s Game, which shows the story of each year’s Superbowl winner. Everything about them, the way the footage is cut, the music, is all part of narrativising the events, making myths. And Friday Night Lights captures that perfectly.

Part of the reason the film captures that feeling so well, and part of what makes it a good film (other than some excellent cinematography and casting) is the soundtrack. The film is almost entirely accompanied by the work of Explosions in the Sky, a sweeping instrumental act native to Texas, where the events take place. Take a listen to this and tell me it doesn’t make you want to go do something grand.

But enough of the fanboying. Let’s look at the issues this film brings up.

Poster for the 2004 film Friday Night Lights. Black and white shot of three American football players walking out onto the pitch.

The first interesting thing the film handles is issues of race. Texas, particularly the smaller towns, is not well known for its progressive attitude towards racial equality. So when the championship game turns out to be against the state’s first all-black team, Dallas Carter, this is a big thing. And you know what? It’s handled pretty damn well. It can probably best be summed up with one particular quote. The coaches and assorted hangers-on of both teams have met to discuss where the game will take place, and how it will be adjudicated to ensure fairness. Asked about referees, the Panthers’ coach suggests hiring a team of officials. Asked whether these zebras1 will be black or white the coach replies “I believe a zebra’s got about the same amount of black stripes as he does white ones.”

It’s not just the coaches. The players on the Panthers are a pretty varied mix of black, white and Latino. It’s hard to say how much of this is credit to the film makers, and how much is merely a reflection on the make up of the real life team the events are based on. What is definitely to their credit though is the way these characters are handled. The film makers resist the temptation to give us Male White Lead #27b and make the entire film about the quarterback. Instead we get equal screen time devoted to several of the characters (with the arguable show-stealer being Derek Luke as star running back James “Boobie” Miles). It’s nice to see.

The second issue we get in the film, which I’d argue is relevant to basically everyone, is the pressure placed on young people and the struggles of forming an identity. In the context of the film this identity is mostly about defining yourself as a person beyond what your town expects of you as a player. But the basic principle applies to any youthful deviation from accepted norms, which is probably something a fair few readers here have experienced. Telling the world you identify as a feminist might not immediately seem the same as telling your dad you don’t care that much about football, but I think the film does a nice job of showing the universal pressures of youth that tie both experiences together.

Being the champions is basically all the town cares about. On game day, everything shuts down as people leave their workplaces to go watch the game. It’s made clear to the coach that if they don’t win the state championship he should probably think about finding a different down to live in. Win and you’re a local god, lose and you’re a pariah. The alcoholic former-champion father of one character captures this particularly well, kind and caring when the team’s winning, drunk and abusive when his son makes a mistake. How does someone grow and learn to be themselves faced with that?

It’s a good film, it raises some interesting points, and it gives a fascinating look into the life of small town Texas. And for all that it shows the darker side of football, it’s still the film that made me go out and start playing, so it has to get some credit for that.

  1. Zebras being a nickname for referees, due to their black and white striped tops. []
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