McFarland USA

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“What do you do for fun?”

“What?”

“Like, what do you do in your free time?”

Shrug. “Nothing. I help my mom take care of my baby sister.”

This is a typical answer I get when I ask my students about their hobbies. I work as a speech-language pathologist in Oklahoma City, and the three schools I’m at have a large Latino population. I’d say my particular schools are about 80% Latino, 15% black, and 5% white. One of my principals, before I had decided to work in Oklahoma City, told me one of the reasons working in OKC was so rewarding was that the kids in Oklahoma City don’t have access to the same services as the kids in Norman or Yukon. This was integral to my decision to work for OKC Public Schools.

We’re getting dangerously close to Great White Savior territory here, so let me clarify a bit. Other factors in deciding to work for OKCPS were convenience (all my schools are really close to Norman, so my commute is minimal), financial (more money than any of the suburban areas), and situational (Norman offered me a middle school, but OKC offered me two high schools). I didn’t enter into this job with a hero complex. I only set all that up in that above paragraph to provide context for this: McFarland USA moved me to tears.

Granted, that’s not hard to do. I’m pretty teary-eyed in movies in general; it doesn’t take much. Even cheesy Disney sports movies lacking much in the way of realism about the way the world really works (i.e. last year’s Million Dollar Arm) manage to elicit tears from me. But McFarland USA, for all the general sports-movie clichés it rides to its inspirational finish, has something more substantial at its heart: a true appreciation for the people populating its story.

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Kevin Costner stars as a football coach with a temper problem who moves his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters to tiny McFarland in sunny Southern California. The town is so Hispanic that apparently its restaurants don’t serve hamburgers, only tacos- thankfully one of the only “Gee whiz, those Mexicans!” moments in the movie. Costner’s character’s name is Jim White, which would be too perfect except this is a true story and that’s really his name. As White’s family struggles to acclimate to the town, you start to worry it’s the movie that thinks all the Mexicans look like thuggish gangsters and not Mr. White.

But then director Niki Caro (the magical Whale Rider, North Country) turns her attention away from the White family, and McFarland USA becomes a surprisingly rich painting of Latino-American culture. White notices all the high school boys running to and from the fields where they work as pickers and convinces the principal to let him start a track team. The track sequences are exciting, especially as the meets pit the Latino boys from McFarland against preppy white boys from schools with far more money. But more exciting are the lengths Caro goes to draw the audience into McFarland’s everyday culture, filling out the movie with warm supporting characters like the parents (Diana Maria Riva and Omar Leyva) of the three Diaz boys on the team, the flustered Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez), and a hospitable shopowner (Danny Mora). As the movie rounds toward its finish line (yep), the Whites have fully integrated into the town’s culture, so that McFarland USA becomes about how the track team reflects the culture of its city rather than its coach.

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Most movies like this want to address stereotypes head on, but Caro eschews preaching in favor of letting the reality of the Hispanic culture in this town speak for itself. It’s an effective decision; you come away from McFarland USA with a sense of how wrong the stereotype of the “lazy minority” is. I’m sure it’s tempting to assume any minority’s lack of privilege stems from their own effort rather than unequal opportunity. McFarland USA blows by this argument without a passing glance.

My principal, the one who convinced me to work in Oklahoma City, he told me once that a lot of the students at my school don’t do their homework, not because they don’t want to, but because there’s nowhere in their homes to do it. I grew up with a room of my own and extra rooms to work in if I wanted to. Some of my students share one room with all their brothers and sisters, and they’re expected to cook meals because their parents work two jobs. It would be nice if McFarland USA could change the hearts of a few people who went to see it expecting a Kevin Costner movie. What they’d really get is the rare movie that’s as insightful about Hispanic culture as it is inspirational as a sports movie.

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