Cool Runnings: The Best Movie Ever
There’s a lot of good movies out there. I’ve seen a lot of them. From watching Citizen Kane to Dr. Strangelove to modern stuff like the Matrix and Inception, I estimate that I’ve spent perhaps three quarters of a year of my life watching movies. I really like them. As a writer, there’s something special about seeing a screenplay of words become either an amazing or awful, or most likely somewhere in between, movement of actions, visuals, music and dialog. It’s like watching the concept of something become the form of something (fitting that I mentioned the film Inception here, I guess). It’s like watching something being born. And it’s fascinating to me, even with shitty movies.
Well one of my favorite shitty movies of all time was Cool Runnings. I saw it as a kid, and for reasons unbeknown to me now, it used to freaking crack me up. I used to try terrible fake Jamaican accents all the time and say “Sanka, you dead yet?” enough to where my mother banned me from saying it in the house. I used to pretend bobsled on a broken skateboard in the driveway. It meant a lot to young me, is what I’m saying. For those of you who are insufferably lame and are now asking “what’s Cool Runnings?” I’ll stop to summarize it. It’s a Disney movie loosely based on the true story of Jamaica’s first foray into the Winter Olympics in bobsledding. It’s a typical underdog-type story where a bunch of goof-offs are looked down upon by established and mostly European (more on that later) members of the bobsledding establishment and through a combination of slapstick, determination, crack coaching from a fat white guy, and montages end up seriously challenging the power structure; not winning the gold medal, but doing enough to bring pride to themselves and their country. It’s typical early-90s PG non-edgy uplifting sports comedy (read: formulaic writing with meh acting). But it resonated with me, even as an adult. Now looking back, I really do think that (perhaps, partially unintentionally), Cool Runnings has one of the best messages ever about race and identity. I’ll explain.
There’s the general story of course. A group of plucky, fun-loving, pretty stereotypical Jamaican guys capture hearts and go up against 100% White competition and come one mechanical failure away from the biggest “fuck you” to the Man since Shaka Zulu. They learn using what they have and apply things unique to them and their heritage to go out and shock the world. That story in itself is a pretty obvious racial and cultural story. But I really thought there were four more subtle moments that really drove the point across. I think they were really a microcosm for the entirety of the Pan-African existence. No, really.
1) The first moment we see is basically when the American coach Irv Blitzer, played by the magnanimous John Candy(this being his second-to-last movie role before his death) takes the team in as a coach but almost ruins their chances of even competing because of his cheating and general misconduct in the past. World Bank/Jamaica parallels aside, this could be read as a pretty serious statement about Western-Southern relations in general. Paternalistic aid is offered by a country with expertise and wealth and is accepted, but generally something bad comes of it down the road. John Candy can be read as a pretty obvious America parallel (a really fat really lazy White cheat).
2) The most heartbreaking moment in film to me (sorry Simba): when Yul Brenner realizes that he can never live in, or most likely even visit, his dream home Buckingham Palace. That shit is sad, son. Really sad. And for me it kinda was a reminder of the true heartbreak of being born Black (at least in America). There are certain glass walls and ceilings that stop us from realistically getting some things, while those barriers don’t exist for wealthy whites. While no person can realistically dream of being the Queen or King of England, there are a lot of things that as we Black folk grow older and less innocent, we realize that we most likely won’t get, or that will be much harder for us than Whites. We’ve got one out of 44 Presidencies in history and a worse percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs. Average successes for White folks like going to college or having a portfolio are by and large Buckingham Palaces for poor Black boys born anywhere on this planet. This one really reverberated with me somehow.
3) The issue about trying to imitate the Swiss team to win. Once the team becomes serious competition, they begin to try and adopt the mannerisms and rituals of the Swiss team to get an edge. It manifests most in language. They go out and try and count down in German and summarily end up sucking at (a) The German Language (b) the Swiss mannerisms and (c) life. Once they decide to use their own style they break out of the funk and become contenders again. Easy! I really think this one was an overt message about the difference between assimilation and complete abandonment of identity. They wanted to respected on the same merits in the same game, but thought that they had to do it the same way as everyone else. There’s a pretty serious message about multiculturalism there.
4) The mechanical failure that derails them at the end. They were gonna win. And I remember my first time watching, even as a kid knowing that somehow they really weren’t gonna win. And then it happened, and the movie changed gears from “beat the Man” to “gain respect from the Man.” It was in essence, Fate moving the goal posts (to steal a Republican turn of phrase). That kind of sums up the Struggle in a movie scene to me. It’s how you go from a Black President winning by an overwhelming majority to the inevitable racially-charged counter push almost derailing him at midterms. It’s how you get MLK being assassinated before starting the Occupy Wall St movement 40 freaking years before it actually happened. When you’re playing from behind, there’s much less room for error, catastrophes or even bad luck. And it’s even sadder for me because somehow everyone watching the movie for the first time knows they won’t win. Even if you don’t know the real story you just kinda know. I think that says a lot.
Welp, you just read probably the biggest overanalysis of a Disney movie ever, but I got a lot of time on my hands since classes are over and I’ve been thinking on this for a while. Thanks for reading. Go out and rent a copy and tell me what you think.