In the farming town of McFarland, California, Jim White decided to start a cross-country team with boys who seemed to be able to run forever. These teenagers were not your typical, promising athletes; they were the sons of poor immigrant farmers—some even lacked the means to buy running shoes—helping their parents on the farm before school and returning to work again after school. They were faced with challenges such as the prevalence of drugs and gangs, and somehow, with the help of Coach White, they became state champions—nine times. This inspirational true story is being told in Disney’s upcoming McFarland, USA, starring Kevin Costner as Coach White. Both Costner and White spoke to the Tribune about the film and the remarkable circumstances it’s based on.
Costner first heard the story when he read it in a Sports Illustrated article 10 years ago, and was thoroughly impressed. Speaking as a veteran lead in the inspirational sports movie genre, Costner holds that McFarland, USA is decidedly different from his previous sports films, such as Bull Durham and Field of Dreams.
“[McFarland, USA] is not a movie about running, it’s not about cross-country,” he asserted.
To illustrate his point, Costner described his visit to the McFarland farming community as an eye-opening experience to harsh realities of their living conditions, but also to a sense of undying hope for a better life.
“They’re simply working there, these incredible hours through very difficult weather conditions, every day of their life for one reason and one reason only: To advance their children and to give their children a better opportunity,” he said. “There’s nothing more American than a parent trying to make [….] life better for their children.”
Costner spoke passionately about the McFarland story, and he praised Coach White for his belief in the McFarland kids’ potential.
“[White was] very level with these kids, and he’s so level to the point that he’s also able to tell them when they’re off course [because] coaching is about the big picture, which is how they’re gonna be as men,” Costner explained.
On the phone, the real Coach White was more humble about his role in the building of the team.
“I needed a job […] so I wouldn’t get fired again,” the coach chuckled. White noticed that the McFarland boys had a fire within them that he had not seen before. “These boys didn’t slack off and jog and walk like everybody else was doing. They actually loved to run, and so you try to look for things like this in young people.”
The coach was able to motivate the boys to run for hours with simple techniques.
“They’ll run for anything, you know. They will. It doesn’t have to be anything but an ice cream cone,” White said.
Some may feel that the inspirational sports film is an exhausted genre. However, McFarland, USA has more to offer than winning racing competitions. The film brings to light social and political issues and their effect on hardworking immigrant communities. To reduce this film to its Hollywood framing is to strip it of its significance to the communities it is depicting.
“[The film] means an awful lot to the community of McFarland,” White explained. “It is really, really true to [the] life hardships that the kids have to go though working in the fields. It’s so important to understand what they’re really going through.”
This is not to say that the staple themes of teamwork and perseverance in sports films are not also important. McFarland, USA is an inspirational tale of the creation of champions from a seemingly hopeless situation. Costner himself is a seasoned athlete, having played football, baseball, and basketball in his youth, which might be what drew him to the genre. For Costner, good films are a lot like quality sporting competitions.
“[They] are emotional experiences,” he said. “When movies are working at their very best, they become about moments that you’ll never forget, and we carry [those] moments throughout our whole life.”