WE'RE ALLfamiliar with the watershed figures in the integration of sports—JackieRobinson, Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods. But as the film Pride reminds us, mostheroes of the civil-rights movement work and play in obscurity. One of them isJim Ellis, a former swimmer at Cheyney University who in 1973 started anall-African-American swim team in Philadelphia. While working for the city as awater-safety instructor, Ellis cleaned up an indoor pool at an inner-city reccenter. That was the easy part. Next Ellis had to persuade black teens who sawswimming as a white sport to trade their basketball shorts for Speedos.
In Pride, Ellis,played by Oscar nominee Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), builds thePhiladelphia Department of Recreation swim squad over the course of a montagebacked by the O'Jays' Love Train. But the film also powerfully lays out theracial hurdles faced by Ellis and his swimmers. Urban kids weren't the onlyones who considered swimming a white sport: Suburban clubs that less than adecade earlier had posted WHITES only signs weren't always welcoming to blacks.In one scene in Pride an all-white team from a Philadelphia private schoolrefuses to share the pool with the PDR swimmers.
Pride's portrayalof a grassroots racial struggle—think Glory Road without the Final Fourbackdrop—is inspiring, even if director Sunu Gonera can get maudlin. When PDR'sprivileged rivals pull their racist stunt, Howard, his kids and the crowd atthe meet all react by crying. When a black neighborhood thug pees in the PDRpool, Ellis throws punches, then turns on the waterworks again.
Audiences don'tneed those cues to get Pride's message. Ellis, 59, who still runs the PDR, hashelped scores of swimmers win college scholarships, and the club is now anational powerhouse. Black swimmers have also made their mark internationallysince he started the PDR team: In 1984 UCLA's Chris Silva became the firstAfrican-American to compete at the Olympic trials, and in 2000 Anthony Ervinwas the first to win an Olympic medal, a gold in the 50-meter freestyle. Ellisdidn't train them, but, Pride shows us, thousands of others have learned toswim because Ellis, in a very real way, pushed them into the pool.