Directed by Steve James
Starring Andre Braugher, Rip Torn
Feb. 27 at 6pm & Feb. 28 at noon
What would Harvard do if its squash team were not allowed to play Trinity for the national title?
This may seem like a ludicrous question; how can there be a national title unless every team is allowed to compete against each other? A ridiculous question today, yes, but 30 years ago, this same kind of problem had very real implications for segregated school systems throughout the South. Separate schools meant separate athletics, and in the 1960's New Orleans had two different basketball champions every year. TNT's new television movie Passing Glory, which debuted last Sunday, chronicles two Josephite priests' struggle against inequality and their efforts to integrate high school basketball in New Orleans.
Passing Glory is based on the true story of a secret championship game between St. Augustine and Jesuit that took place in 1965. Writer Harold Sylvester played in that game, and St. Augustine's star player, Travis Porter, is based on his experiences (see accompanying interview). Sylvester's connection to the story gives Passing Glory a local, personal feel--the Civil Rights movement as seen through a vignette of New Orleans history.
When Passing Glory opens, the St. Augustine Purple Knights are on the verge of clenching the New Orleans colored city championship. They know, however, that their victory is not complete; Travis is determined to find out how they stack up against Jesuit, the best white team in the city. When the St. Augustine coach leaves suddenly, Father Verrett (Homicide's Andre Braugher) takes over as coach. A determined desegregationist from Baltimore, Verrett seizes on the idea of a game with Jesuit as a way to quicken the pace of reform in New Orleans.
The injustice of segregation pervades every scene in Passing Glory. While the film is very much about race, however, its perspective on the problem of inequality is more nuanced than is often the case in stories about the Civil Rights movement. The frustration felt by Travis' family and blacks in New Orleans is palpable, but it is tempered with the realization that safety requires them to eschew radical forms of protest. Passing Glory also highlights the struggle within Catholic Church against racial injustice. In one of the opening scenes, Father Grant announces that the Louisiana High School Athletic Association has again turned down St. Augustine's petition for integrated basketball games. Many people within the archdiocese are frustrated by segregation but do not know what action they can take to remedy it.
Both Andre Braugher and Rip Torn deliver excellent performances as Verrett and Grant. Tension results between the two friends when they cannot agree on the best way to combat segregation. Verrett pursues equality with an almost reckless passion, while Grant still hopes to effect change through official channels. This same sort of tension is played out convincingly between Travis and his father, whose concern for Travis' safety makes him a constant check on his son's determined idealism.
Maybe idealism is too strong a word. After all, Travis just wants play ball and get the chance at a real city title. But when the archdiocese finally begins to consider the merits of a Jesuit-St. Augustine game, Verrett's in-your-face approach to segregation jeopardizes his team's safety and dashes all hopes of an official game.
Unsatisfied, Travis forces the question and challenges Jesuit to a secret match outside of official league play. When Verrett and Grant ask the players' families about the possibility of going through with the secret game, it becomes clear that neither side can resist the chance to prove themselves the better team. The game takes place, therefore, because the chance for a truly equal competition overrides the teams' fears and mistrust of one another.
Avoiding the tired Southern stereotypes that plague so many movies about the 60s, Passing Glory leaves audiences with a more realistic idea of what the atmosphere in segregated New Orleans must have been like. Many people had good reason to be frustrated, but progress did not always require violent events. The St. Augustine-Jesuit game paved the way for officially integrated competition in 1967. Because of Verrett and Grant, New Orleans finally got a real city championship. St. Augustine's success should hearten people who face inequality today by reminding them how much progress has been made since 1965.