Carter High starts out a little preachy, but ends up hitting all the right chords even to the point of making your eyeballs sweat during the final raw scenes from the courtroom.
It proved to be a gripping, unflinching true story about the championship football team from Dallas that wasn’t.
There was no sugarcoating the truth regarding their controversial, yet inspiring, run to the state championship in 1988 that galvanized the Oak Cliff community before the title was taken away in 1991 by the University Interscholastic League for using an ineligible player.
It vividly depicted the shameful downfall of five members of the Carter Cowboys who were arrested for a string of armed robberies and sent to prison.
This was not the same exaggerated Carter team that was portrayed as villains in the best-selling book turned hit movie Friday Night Lights about the Odessa Permian football team.
That was a romanticized and Hollywood-edited story glorifying Texas high school football.
This is the true and real story about urban kids who made good and bad choices and were forced to face the consequences.
If the crowd Tuesday night for the Red Carpet Premiere at the Studio Move Grill in Dallas was any indication, Carter High was a triumph as well as a form of healing for the city, school and the community.
There will be a limited release on Friday in Dallas and Houston. After opening weekend, Carter High will start pushing out to theaters nationwide.
“It was a big deal,” said Jessie Armstead, who was the bright light in a sea of darkness from that team as he became an All-America linebacker in college at Miami before playing 12 years in the NFL.
“It gives everybody an opportunity to see what went on. One thing about it, until you are able to tell your side of the story, it’s a one-side story. We had a lot of great people on that team. We worked just as hard as Odessa Permian, but it made it look like we didn’t prepare and just went out there and played. We were a well-trained group of guys who won the state championship. Everybody pulled for that team back then. You look at the turnout today. Hopefully, it will keep getting bigger and bigger.”
And what a big deal it was, packing six screens at the sold-out Studio Movie Grill while drawing the elite of Dallas, including former Cowboys Tony Dorsett, Rayfield Wright and Bradie James, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, State Senator Royce West, acclaimed actress Irma P. Hall as well as the stars of the movie such as Charles S. Dutton, Vivica A. Fox, David Banner and former TCU running back Aundre Dean.
Former Carter coach Freddie James was also there. He was portrayed in the movie as a stern taskmaster who cared as much about the kids going to college and leading productive lives as he was about them being great football players and not as the slick scoundrel as he was depicted in Friday Night Lights.
Give former Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis credit for financing the movie and serving as the executive producer.
“When you look at it, this is the most talked about team in the country over the course of time,” Ellis said. “But nobody seemed to depict them the right way. They always wanted to depict them as villains. These were teenagers. They weren’t perfect, but they were teenagers that made some bad decisions and choices.”
The movie was the brainchild of writer-director Arthur Muhammad, a member of the 1988 Carter team who had penned the screenplay before the Friday Night Lights movie came out in 2004.
“It feels good,” Muhammed said. “I hate to make the comparison to a woman giving birth, but to have something in you for so long come out, you feel relieved. And it was important to have the premiere in Dallas. We shot the movie in Dallas. We wanted to keep it here. This movie is not based on a true story. This movie is a true story.”
It’s true because Muhammed was there and saw it transpire first hand. It’s real because he didn’t go Hollywood in the story and try to make anyone a hero or have a happy ended.
It started with Carter’s run to the title and ended with the players being sentenced to prison one by one amid screams of devastated family members in the courtroom.
“It was more than football,” Muhammed said. “It was about the community and the school and how the community rallied behind the school. I humanized them by staying true to the story. I didn’t have to make them better than what they were. I portrayed them as they were.”
West was a 36-year old attorney at the time who was initially charged with helping fight the UIL before representing the players in the courtroom. He is still frustrated by the sordid tale of “no pass, no play”, the racial implications regarding the sentencing and the political plays made by those in the court system along with the bad decisions of the kids.
Texas High School football might be the hook. And that Carter team might have been the greatest the state has ever seen. A record 21 players received college scholarships. Six played in the NFL.
But again, this story was not about football.
This movie is about choices and choosing right from wrong.
These were not a bunch of street kids from the hood who grew up in one-parent homes. Oak Cliff was not the ghetto. It was a professional community at the time with hard-working parents only to be let down by kids looking to make a fast buck for kicks.
Armstead and defensive back Derric Evans provided the perfect contrast. They were the two best players on the team and arguably the nation.
In that respect, they were running buddies and rivals. Consider national signing day when Evans chose to continue his college career at the University of Tennessee by making his announcement while sitting in a Jacuzzi. Armstead topped him by making his announcement in a conference room at the luxurious Anatole Hotel to coincide with the 6 p.m. news.
It was Armstead who also chose not to join Evans and another teammate in the robbery spree. Armstead, who won a national title at Miami and was a five-time Pro Bowler, still works for the New York Giants.
Evans was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“It shows that if you work hard you can accomplish anything in want to, but also shows it’s a thin line between right and wrong,” Armstead said. “And they did some things that were wrong and they ended up going to prison. So it lets kids know one side, the successful side, and the other side that happens if you did something wrong.
“You need to have kids see it. I can’t wait for my kids to see it. I tell them make sure you are not a follower. No matter what the circumstances. Make sure you say ‘no’ like I said ‘no’. The world is full of temptation. You have to know when to say ‘no’”.