Positive Influence and Persistence: A Film Review of McFarland, USA

Delta Winds cover 2017Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Positive Influence and Persistence: A Film Review of McFarland, USA

Elijah Martinez

Anger, persistence, determination, hope: these are some of the emotions experienced in the pursuit of a worthwhile goal. McFarland, USA, directed by Niki Caro, tells the story of a disgraced former football coach who teaches a band of Latino laborers how to push themselves beyond their presumed capacity, reaching for greater heights than they thought possible. The film highlights the positive influence of a white man on minority youths and the positive impact they and their families have on him. The film also celebrates the power of persistence and urges audiences to examine and reject stereotypes. This film was especially meaningful to me because of similarities between a character in the movie and a high school teacher who changed my life.

The theme of influence appears throughout this film. The film opens with a high school football game. During halftime, an inspirational speech delivered by Coach Jim White goes awry. While the speech conveys Jim's passion for competitive sport, it reveals the only difference between "anger" and "danger" is a "d." Leaders often lose influence when they lose control of their emotions. After his anger results in a teenager getting injured, Coach White finds his only option for employment is in one of the poorest cities in America. Once he brings his family to McFarland, Jim's character changes, as his sympathy for others grows.

This sympathy expands gradually when he meets the members of his high school cross country team. Although he has no experience with cross country, he is assigned to be the coach. When Jim handpicks his team, he specifically chooses Danny Diaz, the slowest runner, on the basis that Danny will bring his faster brothers, and for this Danny is labeled as the anchor of the team. As Jim trains the young men, he begins to see students for who they are, individuals with families and issues. This is heavily emphasized when the Diaz brothers quit the team in order to help their father pick in the fields. Jim volunteers to help them pick so they will be able to make practice, and it is in the fields among them he realizes in just one day the hardships these young men endure every day. Coach White learns of the hardships of another athlete on the team-Thomas Valles. Valles is so distraught over his home-life with a drunken father that he ultimately contemplates suicide. Finding Thomas sitting on the edge of a bridge, Coach White connects with the young man, talking him out of jumping, and helping him channel his frustration through running. As the coach makes these bonds with each member of his team, he encourages them to consider that there is more to life than just picking in the fields, pointing them in the direction of college.

Throughout the film, the power of persistence is prevalent. Coach White is determined to see his team succeed through vigorous training for long hours. Although McFarland High does not win their first race, they do not lose hope; they adjust to their environment, training by running up hills consistently. Early in the film, Johnny Samaniego, one of the runners on the cross country team, says to Coach White, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog." It is not until the very end of the movie that this quote is given full meaning when Danny Diaz, the slowest and heaviest runner of the team, shows an incredible display of perseverance by pushing himself to run faster, ultimately winning the race for his team.

Pervasive stereotyping can be found on many occasions throughout this film. On his family's first night in McFarland, when they are exiting a Mexican restaurant, Jim White observes a gathering of Latinos in their lowriders and, based on their vehicles and attire, makes the hasty conclusion that they must be thugs. Subsequent stereotypes include the Diaz family all working in the fields to make ends meet, their entire lives. Later, Thomas's father discourages him from furthering his education stating, "No one ever needed a book in the fields," implying that he will never be anything more than a picker, fulfilling the stereotype of uneducated Mexicans.

The film works to break down these stereotypes with characters such as Javi, who Jim assumes is a thug but who turns out to be a humble and peaceful man, trying to live an honest life. Javi also breaks down the misogynist label placed on many Mexican men by the vast extent of love he shows for his girlfriend, even painting her portrait on the hood of his car. Mrs. Diaz is shown to be an exemplary mother who values her sons' education and even teaches Jim White a lesson about the importance of family. Thomas Valles' father breaks from his stereotype by attending the state championship meet and embracing his son's triumph there. At the end of the film, the final toppling of stereotypes is revealed when it is noted that every member of the McFarland cross country team attended college, becoming teachers, landowners, and accomplished individuals, even though not a single member of any of their families had previously completed the ninth grade.

As I watched this movie, I could easily relate to the morals taught and the issues presented, some of which mirrored those found in my family. Many of my ancestors crossed the Mexican border into the United States illegally and became living embodiments of Latino stereotypes, settling across California in small towns similar to McFarland. These family members worked in the fields or became street thugs, driving lowriders and dressing in the attire portrayed in McFarland, USA. A vast majority of my aunts and uncles dropped out of middle school and high school, influenced by their parents, much like the father of Thomas Valles telling his son he would never need a book when working in the fields.

While a great majority of distant family lived and died in the fields or succumbed to gang violence, I had an experience somewhat similar to that of the runners. When I was thirteen, my family moved to Fresno for a short time. During my stay there, I met several cousins, all around my age, who had dropped out of high school to work as landscapers. Their parents strongly encouraged me to do so as well, as they saw it as an easy lifestyle. I might have followed in their footsteps if not for the influence of a math teacher, who along with my mother encouraged me to believe that I could do more with my life than mow someone's lawn. Due to this teacher's influence, I was able to graduate from high school a year early and make a plan to attend Delta College and prepare for a career in the medical field. That teacher motivated me just as Coach White motivated his runners, pushing them to break the stereotypes and to go to college-to become more than just pickers in fields.

McFarland, USA is an inspirational film tracking the cross country team as they march to their goal of state championship. McFarland, USA paints a vivid image of the living conditions and stereotypes many poor Latino families endure, working endlessly just to make ends meet. Among the families of McFarland, I could see many of my distant relatives. They still live to this day engulfed in poverty. In the figure of Mrs. Diaz, I could see my own mother giving me the courage to persevere in school. And just as Jim White saw potential in his team and granted them the opportunity to prove that they were more than just pickers, my math teacher saw potential in me and helped me find the path to a brighter future.