“McFarland” is based on the life of Jim White, a hothead football coach who worked his way down from good paying jobs at big schools to taking an assistant coach position in McFarland, California, one of the poorest towns in America.
When we first see White (Kevin Costner) he’s hurling a cleated shoe at the lippy captain of his football team. He opens the kid’s cheek and loses his job. It’s a recurring pattern for the temperamental teacher, and the thing that lands him in McFarland. He and his family are fish-out-of-water in this mainly Latino town where jobs as “pickers” in the local fruit and vegetable fields are valued over athletic or academic achievement.
White soon notices that several of his students have a remarkable ability; they can run like the wind and strengthened by years of picking, have great physical strength and endurance. He puts together the school’s first ever cross-country track team and after a rocky start—placing last in their first meet—and not so hidden racism from other teams—“Bet they can’t run without a cop behind them and a Taco Bell in front of them.”—White teaches the seven runners how to be champions while they teach him a thing or two about dedication, loyalty and family.
There’s nothing in “McFarland” we haven’t seen in a hundred other sports movies. The underdog-pulling-themselves-up-by-the-bootstraps may be a potent source of drama but it is a familiar one, so it’s hard to get too excited about “McFarland’s” story arc, even if it is tarted up with American Dream messaging about the virtues of heart and hard work. It’s not just a sports movie, it’s an ode to what it is to be American—family + heart = success! They even sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at one point.
“McFarland” is a standard issue inspiration coach movie. White—or “Blanco” as his students call him, inspires the runners but, in a twist, they inspire him to let go of his preconceptions about success and family. On one hand the lack of cynicism is refreshing but it feels a bit old fashioned, like an afterschool special with a bigger budget.
Jim and Cheryl White have seen the movie McFarland three times and teared up every at every viewing, even though, he says, “we knew what was going to happen.”
The film, which stars Kevin Costner as the most successful Californian high school cross-country coach in history, is the story of White, his wife and their life and work in McFarland, California, an impoverished town transformed by sports.
The Texas native taught in McFarland for forty years, establishing a cross-country running team that would win nine state championships and give the runners a glimpse of life outside their small town and nearby fields where many of them worked as migrant “pickers.”
His success may have earned him a Hollywood biopic and a more permanent tribute in the form of a dedicated gazebo in the town square but he sees his influence in more metaphysical terms.
“To me my legacy is in the hearts and minds of these boys I’ve taught.”
In person White is a humble man who quietly commands respect. At a post screening Q&A I hosted with him in Toronto he earned a standing ovation before even saying a word. As the audience clapped he was genuinely moved, and with a quivering voice whispered to me to, “take over for a second.”
Earlier in the day we discussed seeing his life played out on the big screen. “We just hoped they could portray our true feelings of love for the town; for the community. That came across real well. We also felt like they portrayed the true hardships these boys went through.”
Hollywood did make some changes to White’s story and one scene in particular irked him. When we first see White in the film he’s hurling a cleated shoe at the lippy captain of his Idaho school football team, opening the kid’s cheek.
“That is dramatic licence,” he says. “It bothered me for a while but I talked to Kevin Costner about it. I said, ‘Kevin, can you give me your true feelings about the situation that happened in Idaho?’ He said, ‘I think, Jim, you’re going to come across as the hero and not the villain because you’re standing up for what’s right.’ I said, ‘All right and I was satisfied with that.’”
White often uses the phrase “well, that’s Hollywood for you,” when describing the making of the film and the liberties taken with his life’s story but now that the movie is finished he says, “What was really fascinating to both us was watching the screen and seeing them say, ‘Mr. White would you come in here…’ Jim White this, and Cheryl White that. We’re sitting there looking at ourselves up there. It was kind of funny.”