Netflix Update 24: “Edge of America”

December 21, 2009

JAMES McDANIEL

We watched a 2003 Showtime movie, “Edge of America,” which concerns a black man who takes a job teaching English at a high school on an American Indian reservation. This was directed by Chris Eyre, the Cheyenne/Arapaho who was also responsible for “Smoke Signals,” and there are many similarities in mood and detail, including the wise-cracking radio personality.

Kenny Williams, McDaniels’ character, is maneuvered into taking over coaching duties for the school’s girls basketball team which, in a word, stinks. The short version is that he takes the team to the state championship finals, but not via the shortest distance. There are many obstacles, most of them born of Williams’ inability to quickly grasp the nuances of Indian culture and the realities of life for these impoverished and isolated people. He finds his way, however, with some prodding and shoving at the hands of the native people, and the movie becomes “To Sir With Love on the Rez.”

GERALDINE KEAMS

The story line and the outcome seem obvious, but there are excellent performances, including McDaniels’, which won him an Emmy. The Navajo actress Geraldine Keams is inspiring in the role of a tribal elder who is the skeptical mother of one of the team members, and Wes Studi, a Cherokee, is both credible and amusing as an auto mechanic who deftly helps the coach figure out his role in his unfamiliar surroundings. Irene Bedard, an Inuit/Metis actress, does a strong turn as a teacher who is forced to play conscience for the bungling Williams. An ensemble of young actors add a lot of guts to this film in their roles as players and students at the school.

“Edge of America” is based on the experience of Jerry Richardson, who died in an auto accident while he was head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Central Florida. This is how Richardson’s career was described on Humanities and Social Sciences Net Online:

Jerry Richardson, age 40, has been at UCF through four seasons and in that time has become a strong and quiet force on campus and in the community. He inherited a troubled program and last season took his team to a conference tournament championship and the NCAA tournament, a first for the UCF women’s program. Not only was he building a program, but more importantly he was having a significant impact on the lives of young women in Central Florida.

This of course is not surprising. Jerry Richardson came to UCF from the Navajo Nation Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, where he transformed a struggling high school women’s team into four-time State Champions. From 1982 to 1993 Jerry Richardson made the Lady Chieftans of Shiprock into a story of mythic dimensions. More importantly he changed the lives of the young women he coached. Eighty percent of them went on to college, mostly as non-athletes; this at a school with a fifty percent dropout rate in a population beset with poverty and alcoholism.

Richardson believed, and made his players believe, that there was nothing you could not do as long as you had two things: opportunity and a positive attitude. Jerry Richardson brought both to Shiprock and to UCF.

He was above all a teacher, not a coach. He understood the ephemeral character of victory on the courts, and the significance of preparing his women for life after basketball. “The trophies gather dust, the kids don’t, they keep moving,” he said. Jerry Richardson’s players moved on, well prepared for the world after basketball.

JAMES McDANIEL, WES STUDI, and IRENE BEDARD in "Edge of America"


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