Something that I’ve found interesting about reviewing Costner’s filmography, and something I hadn’t thought about before entering into this endeavor, is how many of his films remind me of experiences I had while growing up. Sometimes it’s the subject matter that causes me to remember things from my childhood, and sometimes the movies are just a reminder of where I was when I first saw one of his films, and who I was with—either way, it’s been a really cathartic process—using his film career as a vehicle to process some of these old memories lying tucked away in the back rooms of my brain. I didn’t expect that to be the case with the movie I watched this past week. I had never seen McFarland, USA, and I honestly would have most likely overlooked it if a couple of friends had not given me a copy for my birthday (thank you, Jalen and Jordan). But true to form, this movie, which was only released a couple of years ago in 2015 still managed to stoke up some old memories.
You see, this particular Costner film showcases something that I’ve had a troubled personal relationship with throughout my life—running. I guess it all started back in the summer of ’91… well it probably started before that, but back in ’91 some buddies and I were hunkered down in a ditch next to State Road 75 in Coatesville, Indiana, arsenal of water balloons in hand, when without warning I was suddenly called upon to run for my life. I’m not sure who it was that landed a direct hit on the windshield of the passing Audi—but when we heard the tires screeching, and the sounds of a man exiting his vehicle with a slew of cuss words and phrases we had never dared to speak, the concept of trying to hide disappeared—running was the only option—running to avoid being murdered. Alas, to my eternal shame, I was the slowest that afternoon. Being the last to reach the perceived safety of my friend’s garage, and not quick enough to avoid the eyes of our pursuer, I gave away our position and put all of us in jeopardy. I won’t go into the details of what happened in that garage as violence ensued, but if it happened today that man would definitely have been arrested for assaulting and battering four minors. It honestly wasn’t that bad, but he did have two of us by our throats before we managed to reassure him that we were only throwing water balloons and not rocks. Eventually he calmed down, probably realized he would be in more trouble than we would be, and off he went. But we were all pretty shook up. We had suffered our first real defeat at the hands of a madman, and as we went home in shame that evening, it was my head that hung the lowest for being the reason we were caught. I wasn’t fast enough. Running wasn’t my thing. And I was reminded of this fact many times over the next several years, not by my friends, but by a rogues gallery of villains made up of rabid P.E. teachers, chowderheaded jocks, and draconian football coaches. (I know that not all gym teachers, jocks, and football coaches are bad people, but I certainly had to deal with some real jerks in my day). I was the ongoing butt of jokes for the duration of my entire 7th and 8th grade years—all because I was the last guy to finish running laps in gym class everyday. I was on display for the whole class to stare and laugh as I struggled to finish while they stood next to the bleachers and waited. It’s hard not to feel like a low-life in junior high when the entire class is laughing at you, and the teachers are encouraging them to do so. I guess I was just too young at the time to realize they were all morons. So I tried to do better. I even went out for the football team, pressured to do so by the coaches aforementioned, but I couldn’t handle the insane amount of running required during the practices, so—my failure was complete.
And then, a few years later, something really awesome happened to me—something life changing. During my Junior year of high school, my English teacher read some of my papers, noticed that I had a gift, and told me that whatever I chose to do in my life, writing was supposed to be a part of it. She didn’t just tell me that I was good at it—she told me I was the best in the whole class. And she helped me to see something about myself that I didn’t know was good. Every kid out there has something special, something good to offer the world—they just need a good teacher to see what it is, and tell them it’s ok to pursue it with everything they have… unless they’re a psychopath or a pervert, and in that case, maybe they need therapy or tranquilizers, I don’t know.
Now, if you’re still reading this, and I hope you are—you might be asking what this all has to do with McFarland, USA which is a sports film about a high school cross-country team that won the California state championship in 1987. The truth is, that’s only the description you’ll find on the back of the DVD case, or on the IMDb page. A passing first glance will give the impression that this is only another sports drama, but it’s not. This film has something much more rich to offer because it touches on an issue that many Americans seem to still be struggling with these days—cross cultural communication. Unfortunately, xenophobia is alive and well in these United States. I don’t understand why. Racism, nationalism, and the irrational fear and persecution of minorities and people from other countries and ethnic groups are clearly and openly condemned throughout the ENTIRE Bible. And in a country where the majority of people at least claim to be Christians, this type of behavior and these ways of thinking are irrational. But if you don’t read the Bible, and you just listen to the news, or to many Christians in this country, you would think the opposite is true. I don’t know all the reasons why Costner chose to be in this movie—he long ago reached the point in his career when he could make or be in whatever movie he wants to—but maybe it has something to do with what lies at the heart of this film. Costner has always been good at making movies which cut through the barriers of culture and ethnicity. Several of his movies do this. His co-stars are often people of different cultures than his own. In Robin Hood his best friend and fellow soldier is a Muslim warrior. In The Bodyguard he falls in love with a black woman. In Dances with Wolves he assimilates himself into the Lakota. In The Man of Steel he adopts alien Kal-El from the planet Krypton. In Message in a Bottle he becomes enamored with Forrest Gump’s wife. Wait… scratch that last one. You know what I mean.
In McFarland, USA Costner plays the role of Jim White, a real gym teacher and coach who moved his family into the predominantly hispanic and latino town of McFarland in the Central California Valley back in the late 80s. The film takes us through his journey of learning to understand and adapt to the fact that he and his family are the minorities in the town. It’s not an easy journey for them. The film doesn’t sugar coat this. It lays bare all the difficulties that arise when two different cultures have to learn how to live and work with each other. And it shows how beautiful this kind of thing can really be when humility and vulnerability take precedence over pride and ignorance. And as Jim White learns who his students really are, and what their lives are like, he begins to enter into their world. Once he does that, he’s able to find the things that make them special. It’s not just the ability to run quickly—it’s the ability to be relentless, to overcome difficulty, to spit in the face of adversity—and to do so without sacrificing their commitment to their families and friends. Like any good mentor, like any good coach—like my high school English teacher—he finds their gift, and he encourages them to throw everything they have behind it—body, mind, and soul.