What We Mean When We Discuss All-American Stories

All of the great real-life sports dramas work from the same basic premise — that of an underdog facing nearly impossible odds with determination and an undeniable sense of hope.

Nov 11, 2015 at 12:15 pm
click to enlarge Aaron Eckhart and Finn Wittrock in 'My All American'
Aaron Eckhart and Finn Wittrock in 'My All American'

All of the great real-life sports dramas work from the same basic premise — that of an underdog facing nearly impossible odds with determination and an undeniable sense of hope. Such is the case of Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), an undersized dreamer who wants nothing more than to play college football. Thanks to a herculean training regimen and complete dedication, he earns the attention of Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart), legendary coach of the University of Texas Longhorns, who, in the mid-to-late-1960s, offers this tenacious sparkplug a scholarship. But that’s just the beginning of an inspirational journey for Steinmark and Longhorn fans. My All American writer-director Angelo Pizzo has made a name for himself in this genre, having written and produced Hoosiers, Rudy and The Game of Their Lives.

As I sat back during a recent screening of My All American, allowing the film to run its version of the triple option on my sensibilities — employing tropes of Steinmark’s devoted family, his own unwavering loyalty to his teammates and the steadfast support of his high school sweetheart (Sarah Bolger) — I began to wonder what it would take to redefine what we mean when we label stories “all-American.”

Isn’t it time for us to at least add a few different perspectives into the mix, to twist the familiarity of those narratives, to spotlight unexplored facets of the national and social record of events? Better still, why can’t we acknowledge more of the darker aspects of our troubled history to illustrate the resolve necessary for us to unite and move forward?

This weekend, the city plays host to the fourth-annual OutReels Cincinnati Film Festival, presented by the Cincinnati Film Society, with films screening at the Aronoff Center. And it seems as if there’s an opportunity for regional audiences to explore the question of expanding the conception of what we dub “all-American.” Step by step we are approaching a tipping point, from a legal standpoint, concerning recognizing the rights of same-sex couples, and thanks in large part to social media and reality television (did I just say that?), larger acceptance of all members of the LGBTQ community.

And now through this festival, films like Upstairs Inferno and Scout’s Oath will force us to confront a horrific mass murder of gay men in New Orleans in the early 1970s and discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America, respectively. Upstairs Inferno recalls any number of tragic situations from the Civil Rights era in the South, flashpoints that galvanized a movement. Although there are select communities that would rather not speak of these times, growing numbers would embrace the widespread reaction, the call to arms that gathered citizens from across all racial, religious and socioeconomic divides as uniquely “American” and the leaders — those who sacrificed life, limb and liberty in support of the movement — as “all-American” heroes. And when we learn about those caught in the crossfire in Upstairs Inferno, will we stand ready to add them to the role call?

Or how about those men in Scout’s Oath, compelled to remain silent or be forced out of leadership in the Boys Scouts? Why don’t we know more about their stories, their battles with discrimination?

But it is not just these two films. OutReels offers more than 20 shorts and features, along with Q&A sessions with filmmakers and special guests from across the cultural, social and political spectrum. Consider all of those heroes Pizzo has presented over the years — the little guys like Steinmark, overmatched teams from the Midwest daring to dream and play above their heads, beyond their talent, fighting to prove themselves — and then take the time to attend a screening or two this weekend. After the screenings, stay for the discussions and really listen. No doubt, you will hear the same mythic drumbeats, calling and stirring you to embrace another set of underdogs, yearning to claim their spot in the “All-American” roster. Would we be quicker to align ourselves with them and their fight if Pizzo was at the helm?

OUTREELS CINCINNATI, presented by The Cincinnati Film Society, runs Friday-Sunday at the Aronoff Center. Tickets/more info: cincinnatifilmsociety.org.