I must admit, I was a bit late to the Last Chance U bandwagon. I was sitting around on the couch one afternoon nursing a hangover when Netflix helpfully suggested I might like it. And let me just say that we, as a society, ought not fear turning the sovereignty of our lives over to all-powerful algorithms if this is where they will lead us. I loved this show. Loved it. And I ended up watching it backwards, from Season 3 to Season 1, which is probably not optimal.
So what elevates this series over and above your typical 30 for 30? There are a number of obvious things, such as the deep and essentially unrestricted access that Greg Whiteley’s team got. There is the fact that chronicling a football program from training camp to play-offs is inherently a winning formula, documenting the elation of close wins, the crush of defeats and the little dramas that play out behind the scenes. There was the fact that Season 1 made a huge splash by ending with an all-out brawl. There was the beautiful cinematography of thrilling football plays but also of life in sleepy Southern towns, the shrewd editorial decision to just shoot the players and the staff and the locals, let them tell their stories in their own words and have the audience parse the meaning.
The production was also fortunate to find compelling student athletes with charisma and charm and life stories that were interesting and illuminating and heartbreaking. They were lucky to find someone like Buddy Stephens, an almost perfectly flawed central character around which the action pivoted. Aeschylus couldn’t have written a better character. They were lucky to find someone like Brittany Wagner, who could serve as a foil to Buddy and ground the drama of football in something deeper and more meaningful, and subtly shine a light on how fucked up and backwards a lot of this system is.
But ultimately what elevates this series above a simple 30 for 30 is that it uses football as a window through which to view so many different layers of American society. It was genius on Greg Whiteley’s part to suss out these programs that are widely ignored and focus on their redemptive potential. Not just redemption for the players, many of whom have clearly been failed by society, but redemption for these small Southern towns left behind by the country, redemption for these coaches who had their own dreams go unfulfilled. The show so perfectly captures how all these cogs in the American Dream are working together, lifting people up while simultaneously grinding others to dust.
My first impression of this show was that it was really smart to open on establishing shots of these run-down, middle-of-nowhere towns that for some astronomically obscene reason are home to immense football stadiums. These static shots of dilapidated stores and empty streets populated by old white Southerners tell us so much without saying a word. They establish a sense of time and place, of bucolic country life in a small-town with nowhere to go. They convey just how much value, both economic and social, is being invested into these football programs, which also goes some way toward portraying this weird farm league’s very existence to game the system as a uniquely hucksterish American invention. And they show the yawning chasm separating the residents of the town from the football players propping it up.
The cast of student athletes is too large to detail individually, but a few general things are really clear. One is that society has clearly failed a great deal of these mostly black kids. They come from broken families, where their personal stories often include one or both parents having been killed or sent to prison. They often grow up poor, without access to the basic things that drive success in later life, sometimes struggling just to find someone who genuinely cares about, and it’s clear that society in many ways has let them down. Now, we can argue forever about how much individual responsibility plays a role in this outcome, or whether society is to blame for not providing opportunities and disadvantaging them economically and socially at every turn from the get-go. But either way, it’s clear that life has been a struggle for a lot of these kids, often through no fault of their own, and the one avenue that provides them an opportunity is football.
It is hard to over-state how important football is to these players, and how they excel at football while flailing in the classroom. This says some interesting things about how we as a society value rote learning in a classroom setting and rubberstamped degrees, privileging it over something like athletic ability. A Bachelors Degree is just a box to be checked off for your typical middle-class white person as they march on toward their life as a middle manager in a software company somewhere. But for disadvantaged black kids coming from poor neighborhoods, who don’t have access to the same resources, and have to flail against social structures that for a variety of reasons throw up roadblocks at every turn, just getting a passing grade in a Community College Art class is a struggle.
So what’s the solution? Well it’s not to tackle the problem at its root, for that would involve confronting a hundred years of structural racism and other social problems that run bone deep. The solution is to set up this smoke and mirror football program where kids who messed up in Division I can come down and serve out a purgatorial sentence in Mississippi, focusing on football, keeping their heads down and doing the bare minimum to pass classes designed to pass them, until they can get another shot at a big-time school. The vast majority of them will not even make it to Division I, and even if they do the odds are even more vanishingly small that they will make it to the NFL and earn real money and outrun the roots of their problem, which is a country that has let them down and, frankly, unless they are making Primetime plays on ESPN doesn’t give a fuck about them.
This is what Last Chance U so eloquently, without saying a word, reveals in its more sublime moments. This entire JUCO system is a band-aid for more serious and deeper problems. I mean nobody is going to think about it that way when you’re in the stands watching a game, but that’s what it is. It’s a band-aid for the exploitation of student athletes, and a band-aid for the underlying reason why these athletes are in a position to be exploited in the first place, which is that our society provides them with very few other options. It is sad to see the coaches explicitly acknowledge this, telling their athletes that this is a game and they need to do it, to go through the motions, to pretend like these values are important just convincingly enough so that people on the outside can feel good about the deception. It is both heartbreaking and amazing to see how much they have invested in football, and whether and how they overcome their own personal failings, their families’ failings and the failings of an unfair system to get where they want to go.
And ultimately, that is what makes this show so great. It has great moments of drama, of sadness, of real feeling. It’s populated by compelling and fascinating and heartbreaking characters, who can be their own worst enemies or their own saviors. It lifts up and shows, viscerally, just how much football means to people throughout the country, and what life is like in the forgotten parts of America.
But it also peels back the layers of what is underpinning wealth, class, privilege and inequality in this country and kind of lays bare, in an oblique way and indirectly through the lens of game, what is going on at a deeper social and systemic level. Why do so many of these kids have parents who have been incarcerated? Why have they failed to acquire certain basic social or educational skills, and why are those the skills that determine future success in life anyway? A lot of them, when speaking to the camera, seem like basically good, decent, intelligent individuals. Why is society not serving them the way it should? Last Chance U wrestles with these deep, unanswerable questions, questions that get at the heart of what America wants to be but isn’t, all the while dressing it up in the guise of a basic redemptive football story. But it’s so much more. And that’s what makes it absolutely great filmmaking.