We Could Be King, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, is the gripping tale of poverty, football and the ever-failing school system. The story begins with last year’s ‘Doomsday’ budget cuts in Philadelphia, with over four thousand teachers fired and 37 schools closed. This horrible process resulted in some uneasy school mergers: particularly, the Germantown Bears and the Martin Luther King Cougars, who have one of the most storied football rivalries in the Philadelphia area. As the movie begins, interviews address how games usually ended in fights and the crowds would often get rowdy — even going as far as burning school flags in the stands.

So We Could Be King observes the journey of these two teams coming together and playing for first year coach Edward Dunn. And while there is plenty of in-house fighting between the two sides, the documentary’s one fault is that they really never established the supposed forty year rivalry: they simply talk about all of these extenuating circumstances, which used to happen regularly. But besides a few scuffles, director Judd Ehrlich does not have a proper visual aid to establish the tension the audience should feel from these schools merging.

Luckily, the documentary has a lot of other things going for it: particularly the course of events, which makes We Could Be King a larger-than-life story. If the plot of this were placed in a Hollywood film, audiences would scoff at the improbability of the outcome. Now, take this Cinderella story and mix it with the impending doom brought upon by Philadelphia’s Board of Education and the result is an inner-city problem that resonates on a national level: thus creating the perfect empathetic connection between viewer and subject. Yes, the failure of the school system is bigger than football, but when these players put on their pads, all of their struggles drift away: and the film does a great job of showing this through the juxtaposition of the classroom and game day.

Yet, this does not take the subject’s poverty and put it in an over-sensationalized light. We Could Be King does look at some important social issues that certainly needs to be addressed, but first and foremost this is about the team: how they come together and how particular players react under the stress. And the director does a great job keeping the narrative focused, which is further emphasized with impeccable camera work. The way he sits back and just observes the kids gives a very neutral feeling that has been lost in recent documentaries: meaning shots do not feel staged or manipulated. A lot of the action flows naturally, making it absolutely imperative for the subjects to be personable.

And luckily, they hit the lotto with their three stars: senior Dontae Angus, who has NFL size and talent, junior Sal Henderson, who is undersized but a natural athlete, and, best of all, head coach Ed Dunn. Ultimately, most of the entertainment comes from Dunn, whose halftime speeches deserve to be repeated by an A-list celebrity on the big screen. At the same time, it is great to watch these kids grow tremendously over the course of a semester: as they balance school, life and football. One of the key storylines has Dontae failing in the classroom and losing scholarships to Division I schools: resulting in him bottling up his emotions and taking it out on those around him. To watch him work through his aggression and take a step forward is what makes We Could Be King thoroughly engaging. It is the raw emotion of these kids fighting for a dream, which is a one and a million shot.

Again, everything is brought together by football, which for some serves as the sole reason for their education. And the actual games are impeccably shot with guerrilla style from the sidelines: getting the closest to the action without physically being on the field. The montages of practices and games will have any former player reliving the glory days of his or her high school career. It seems that Ehrlich has an eye for the action, somehow getting the best angle of particular plays from extremely poor positions. But he also breathes life into the sideline, flawlessly observing the raw emotion of players who are in the heat of the battle.

Needless to say, We Could Be King is an emotional rollercoaster ride that will have any person with the semblance of a heart empathetic to the team, the school and these kids. It is an inspirational story about love and loss, which ends with an unreasonable somber note of reality: these kids become kings, to be brought back down to limbo by the system. Yes, some of the seniors go to big name schools and live out their dreams, yet at the end the audience is reminded that MLK High School is unsure if they will be a school or have a football program next year: with a $320 million deficit in Philadelphia’s school budget. A sad fact that perfectly brings the audience back down to reality: showing how the broken system directly affects the lives of the children they intend to help.

Buy the We Could Be Kings DVD here.

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