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Black Sheep Interviews Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin

An interview with UNDEFEATED directors, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin

“It was completely unexpected,” filmmaker, T.J. Martin tells me of his Oscar win for Best Documentary Feature, an honour he shares with two-time collaborator, Daniel Lindsay. Just days before the three of us speak over the phone, Martin and Lindsay were sitting amongst the biggest names in Hollywood, each of them waiting to hear PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY called as the winner in their category. When Robert Downey Jr. announced that their film, UNDEFEATED, had in fact won the Academy Award, it was bewildering to say the least. Concludes Martin on the moment, “I didn’t quite understand what was happening.”

Martin and Lindsay, along with their producing partner, Rich Middlemass, were cut off during their acceptance speech, which has turned their win somewhat sour unfortunately. UNDEFEATED tells the story of a North Memphis high school football team that reaches completely unexpected levels of success in their senior year, despite a number of socioeconomic obstacles. The filmmakers were cut off before they were able to thank the players and the community, which has in turn led to a number of people from the community denouncing the filmmakers as opportunistic.

“In our naiveté, we wanted to save the best for last and dedicate the award to the players and the coaches and the people of North Memphis,” Lindsay tells me, with clear pain in his tone. “It’s been really difficult, to be honest with you,” he continues. “If we could have that moment back, we would start with them.”

While a shout out at the Academy Awards would have been appreciative, I believe that the win itself outweighs their not being mentioned on television. The fact is more people will see UNDEFEATED now that it has won the Oscar, allowing for more people to be made aware of the community’s plight.

Undefeated (2011)

“We wanted a celebratory narrative in a community that often times would never have it,” Lindsay tells me of their original intentions for the film. “Hopefully we could show the potential in a place where a lot of people think there isn’t any potential, but never shy away from the reality, so that a conversation can happen.”

The conversation in question is one that is still difficult even today to have. “We want the film to inspire a conversation about class and how closely that is related to race in this country,” Lindsay explains further. “We never wanted to tell people what they should think. We just wanted to present a world and allow for that conversation to happen. We’re not experts in any of this and don’t want to pretend that we are.”

Now, does that sound like opportunism to you?

As revealing as UNDEFEATED is regarding class struggles in America, its success as a satisfying documentary can perhaps most be attributed to the surprising familiarity in its structure. The Manassas Tigers, the team the film features, are considered a joke by every other team in their district. This season was different though; this season, they were winning. Suddenly, although they never set out to pursue this course, the filmmakers had the structure of a narrative sports movie on their hands.

Middlemass, Martin and Lindsay backstage at the Academy Awards

“We did fight against the sports movie story for a long time,” explains Martin of his initial reluctance to the way his film was evolving. “It wasn’t until midway through the season where we realized that A) a lot of the drama was unfolding on the field and B) the football team spine and structure of the film was really shaping up into a nice three act structure.” While it may be unexpected, its accessibility certainly won’t hurt UNDEFEATED when it comes to finding an audience.

Still, it was never about whether the kids won or lost. “Even if they had lost all their games,” Martin states, with both adamancy and pride, “we would have still made a human interest piece at the end of the day, a coming of age story about the kids and the challenges and obstacles they face every day, both on and off the field.”

UNDEFEATED is in select threatres now. Sports fans and human interest enthusiasts alike should make a point to see it.


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