DVD/Blu-ray review: ‘McFarland USA’ and the Power of One

I once had an argument with a friend. She felt that one person could not make a difference. I believe in the power of one. “McFarland USA” is about one such person making a difference in a community. The reality of that one man’s impact is explored further in the DVD special features. I found the DVD worth having as a source of inspiration.

Although Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson’s script is manipulative, I still got teary-eyed at the end. If you have a heart that still houses hope and hasn’t been dried up into a cynical piece of jerky, then get your Kleenex out. The truth is less dramatic but just as inspiring.

The movie begins in the land of white: Boise, Idaho. Football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) is giving a disgruntled pep talk during half-time, trying to fire up his high school team, but one of the players shows a clear lack of respect. Jim’s reaction. He throws a shoe at him. That results in his dismissal. Jim is scrapping the bottom of the barrel of teaching opportunities when he takes his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello of “ER” fame) and their two daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie to his new teaching assignment in McFarland, CA.

Jim is, like all high school coaches, assigned to actually teach. In this case life science and PE. He is now the assistant football coach, but he soon comes into conflict with the head coach. Soon after, Jim notices that two of the football players, Johnny and Victor (Hector Duran and Sergio Avelar, respectively) are fast runners. He convinces the principal, Camillo, to gather enough boys for a track team to train and compete in the new state championships in 1987. One family, the Diaz brothers Damacio (Michael Aguero), David (Rafael Martinez) and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez) becomes the center of his team. White also includes Jose Cardenas (Johnny Ortiz) and the troubled Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts).

Things don’t go smoothly.

Jim is inexperienced in training for distance running and the boys’ parents are totally convinced that running is a good use of their children’s time when they could be working in the agricultural fields that surround McFarland.

Eventually, Jim does have success, enough to gain the interest of another school with an established team: Palo Alto. The conflict then is about whether Jim will stay with McFarland or move on to Palo Alto. Jim’s fear of the Latino culture gives way to respect and enjoyment when the community gives his eldest daughter Julie a quinceañera party although that’s immediately followed by a shooting.

Much of the conflict is manufactured, using the old Hollywood formula of older white man finds salvation and understanding while improving another culture. The reality is that the Texas-born Jim White wasn’t so unfamiliar with Latino culture. According to HollywoodvsHistory.com, White originally came to California to study at Pepperdine University in the tony town of Malibu. He became a teacher for the McFarland School District soon after his graduation in 1964.

White began teaching fifth grade science and after nine years went on to teach seventh and eighth grade woodshop and PE. Again this was at McFarland Middle School. After 11 years, he then became a PE teacher and began coaching high school cross country. The cross country program had been started up by someone else and dropped for a year before White began it again in 1980. The cross country program was for boys and girls. That makes sense since White had three daughters.

The Disney movie has streamlined women out of the action and, of course, added the possibility of romance.

The ages of the White’s daughters were changed. All three of his daughters went back to Texas (Lubbock Christian University) and graduated. By 1987, the eldest had already graduated (Tami in 1985) and the middle child was away at college (Julie graduated in 1988). The youngest, Jami graduated in 1991. In the movie there are only two daughters ages 10 and 15. There’s a suggest of romantic attraction between the Julie on screen with one of the cross country runners.

According to HistoryvsHollywood.com, at that time, McFarland was predominately white. The U.S. Census shows that has changed.  In 2010, Boise, Idaho is 89 percent white and 1.5 African American. Latino of any race is 7.1 percent. McFarland, which  is in the San Joaquin Valley (Kern County, California), has a different demographics. In 2010, it is 91.5 percent Latino of any race. White is only 1.9 percent. The demographics in 1987 were undoubtedly different, but the movie makes clear that the district Jim finds himself in in McFarland in 1987 was predominately Latino, something that the White family finds unsettling.

Why did the real White decide to take on this challenge? That’s not made clear in the bonus features, but what is clear is that this one man and his decision to build a cross country team changed the whole community. It’s probably not a mistake that White attended a Christian college or that his children did as well.

The bonus features include Kevin Costner with Coach Jim White and the members of the 1987 cross-country team. Not all of them rose to the challenges facing them later in life, but most of them did.

White’s influence and the community’s pride is readily evident. That makes this DVD/Blu-ray even better than the feature alone. If you ever wonder if one person can make a difference, this story, told by Hollywood and then again re-told by the real people will convince you that one person can and that reaching out across barriers of age, race, religion and culture can truly improve a community.

Running time: 129 minutes

Bonus Features:

  • McFarland Reflections: Kevin Costner and Jim White and members of the 1987 team.
  • “Juntos” music video performed by Juanes
  • Inspiring McFarland: How Jim White and his winning teams changed McFarland.
  • Deleted & Extended scenes

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