Undefeated, for Real
How Seattle Native TJ Martin Became a History-Making Oscar Winner
In the life of Seattle native TJ Martin, things got crazy, fast, after Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. walked onstage the night of February 26, made some labored jokes about documentary film, and announced that Undefeated—a movie New York Times critic Manohla Dargis praised as "an irresistible story of football, faith, and the lust for happily- ever-after black-and-white endings"—won the Oscar for best documentary. When Martin and codirector Dan Lindsay went up for their acceptance speeches, Martin said "fuck" and was bleeped, then they got cut off before they could thank the ravaged North Memphis community that's the subject of the film, kicking off two small side controversies. There was another headline to come: TJ Martin is the first African American director of a full-length film to win an Oscar, news outlets immediately began reporting. By the time Martin and Lindsay climbed down from the stage, their win was already getting to be one of the most talked-about events of the night.
Sean Combs, one of the movie's executive producers, started yelling about Martin's history- making designation on Twitter: "Holy Shit!!!!" President Obama had ordered a copy of the movie to be screened at the White House, the New York Post now reported. A fictional version was said to be in the works, and this unmade movie was already being compared to The Blind Side, the 2009 fictionalized version of the life story of Michael Oher, the black football player in Memphis who was taken in and shepherded to college by a white family. Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for best actress for The Blind Side, and the movie was also nominated for best picture, but it has also been widely criticized for its depiction of Oher as "the perfect black man," as Thaddeus Russell described the character (docile, sexless) in an essay titled "Is Sandra Bullock's New Movie Racist?" (Yes, he answered.)
The Blind Side was part of Martin and Lindsay's decision to make Undefeated; they'd thought Oher's story would have made a fascinating documentary. What moved them to pick up their lives and move to Memphis for nine months was a newspaper story about a high school football player with a story similar to Oher's named O.C. Brown. Brown became the heart of Undefeated, along with the white volunteer head coach, Bill Courtney, and a handful of other (black) players and (white, volunteer) coaches.
Now Martin found himself in the middle of a noisy story about race in America. Two weeks before the Oscars, Northwest black news outlet The Skanner had interviewed Martin. "Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?"
Martin responded: "Do you identify as being black?"
TJ Martin has a great American story himself—a story influenced by the narratives of race and class that arise in Undefeated, but, he says, not defined by them.
His parents are Tommy Martin, who still lives in Seattle, and Tina Bell, now in Las Vegas. Tommy is white; Tina is African American. They were the core of late punk/early grunge band Bam Bam, formed in Seattle in 1983 and still talked about as part of the city's lore—hopes for the band were huge; as the group's website says, Bam Bam is "the band that should have been." (Tommy now runs the company TommySound and is known as a killer guitarist by younger generations.)
Many of the musicians who rotated through Bam Bam over its decade-long lifespan ended up making it big in other bands, like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, or eventually winning Grammys. But Bam Bam struggled, in part because audiences weren't on board with an African American female punk singer. "The press compared her to Tina Turner, as if that made any sense," Tommy says.
Tommy and Tina were together several years before they split, and TJ stayed with Tommy. When they went to London to try to make it overseas, they sent TJ to boarding school in France for two years. Other than that, TJ lived in Seattle, mostly in the Central District, where, at around 10 years old, he saw Steven Spielberg's version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
"I didn't understand the content, I didn't know what was going on, but I knew I wanted to make people feel like that movie made me feel," he says.
Undefeated is as Hollywood as a documentary can be without selling out. It's a tightly constructed narrative, jumping from character to character in a sequence designed to deliver the greatest emotional impact—and it works. The ending is neither triumphant nor tragic. "Let's go practice," the coach says, suggesting there's simply more work to be done. The theme, Martin says, is resilience. The coach's talks are the moral backbone of the movie, revolving around the idea that people are defined by the way they handle failure rather than success. (It will not be a surprise if Martin and Lindsay end up directing a non-documentary next; they're considering both types of projects.)
But Martin and Lindsay took care never to let viewers forget the real setting: North Memphis, a place they heard described as "like New Orleans after the flood—but we never had a flood."
"It was important for us to get the audience to be swept away—with the intention and the hopes that it would elicit a greater conversation about race and class," Martin says. "One, we were never going to talk about it [directly]. Secondly, we were not going to shy away from it."
Four days after the Oscars, Martin boarded a plane in LA, where he lives, headed for Bellingham. He lugged the trophy—it goes in the carry-on, and people are universally mesmerized by the sight of it—to a sold-out screening of the movie at Western Washington University, where Martin went to college. (Full disclosure: My fiancé is a friend of Martin's.)
For his visit, WWU finally awarded him his diploma—he'd completed coursework but never paid the fees for the piece of paper—and put him up in a three-story hotel room, his own tower, on the water.
His visit was a chance for students and professors to celebrate him, but also to start having that "greater discussion" he and Undefeated bring up. (Undefeated played for one night at SIFF, but is otherwise not yet scheduled to hit the big screen in Seattle.) At a reception after the screening, Vernon Johnson, an African American political scientist who taught American cultural studies to Martin, said the movie provides an exemplar for white people in the figure of Coach Courtney. He noted how Courtney crosses a stark color and class line with passion and love rather than fear, and makes sacrifices of his own in order to support his players.
During the Q&A after the movie, a student asked, "You are being identified as the first African American director ever to win an Oscar for a full-length film, but you are biracial. What do you think this says about race relations in America?"
In a funny way, Martin, whose parents have the same surface racial makeup as Obama's, is the role model that mixed-race folks didn't get when Obama was elected—if only he'd be allowed the nuance. Martin has described his experience as "night-and-day different than someone with two African American parents" and added that despite all the focus on his win, "it's a staggering statistic" that there hasn't been an African American filmmaker to win the Oscar. In his words is the implicit reminder of all the directors—from Spike Lee to John Singleton to Pariah's Dee Rees—who wait for the Academy's celebration.
"I identify with my experience of how I view the world, and more importantly how the world views me, and the world views me as mixed," Martin said, in answer to the student's question. "I was being interviewed by BET, and I was trying to be all cerebral and talk about being mixed, and the BET reporter was like, 'It doesn't matter, we're gonna claim you anyway.'" The audience, and Martin, broke into laughter.
"But I do think it warrants a greater discussion," Martin followed, still smiling, still trying, like the characters in Undefeated, to develop an individual story in the midst of sweeping historical tides.