You’ve got to at least give McFarland, USA this: Of the two racist Kevin Costner movies released in the past month (the other being Black or White), it’s probably the least racist.
McFarland is based on the true story of Jim White, a disgraced high-school football coach who moved to a majority-Latino town and inspired his cross-country athletes—many of whom had to work to provide for their families while attending school—to go on to college. But even though a white-savior movie is based on a true story, it’s still a white-savior movie. McFarland is interested only in the white perspective.
When he moves to the town McFarland, Costner, as White, glowers at everything he sees: the low riders, the signs written in Spanish, the old women tending to chickens in their yards. “Dad, please tell me we took the wrong exit,” White’s teenage daughter scoffs. They go to a Mexican restaurant, and White is outraged to discover that they don’t serve burgers, only weird food like tacos and burritos.
But this is a Disney movie, so rest assured the Whites will learn a Valuable Lesson. White helps his students earn self-esteem, and they help him manage his anger. The film presents the usual obstacles (White forgot his daughter’s 15th birthday! White is offered a job at a better, whiter college!), and everything is resolved with gold-hued cinematography and hearty handshakes and a montage set to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The bones of the film are sturdy: It’s a feel-good sports drama that unspools at a leisurely pace. The kids on White’s team, especially Carlos Pratts as the star runner, are solid actors. But it’s just one more movie about white people single-handedly improving a non-white community. Sure, the white guy learns something along the way, but the inspirational message of McFarland, USA is that ethnic neighborhoods need a little more White-ness to make everything okay.