familiar with the watershed figures in the integration of sports—Jackie
Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods. But as the film Pride reminds us, most
heroes of the civil-rights movement work and play in obscurity. One of them is
Jim Ellis, a former swimmer at Cheyney University who in 1973 started an
all-African-American swim team in Philadelphia. While working for the city as a
water-safety instructor, Ellis cleaned up an indoor pool at an inner-city rec
center. That was the easy part. Next Ellis had to persuade black teens who saw
swimming as a white sport to trade their basketball shorts for Speedos.
In Pride, Ellis,
played by Oscar nominee Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), builds the
Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim squad over the course of a montage
backed by the O'Jays' Love Train. But the film also powerfully lays out the
racial hurdles faced by Ellis and his swimmers. Urban kids weren't the only
ones who considered swimming a white sport: Suburban clubs that less than a
decade 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 school
refuses to share the pool with the PDR swimmers.
of a grassroots racial struggle—think Glory Road without the Final Four
backdrop—is inspiring, even if director Sunu Gonera can get maudlin. When PDR's
privileged rivals pull their racist stunt, Howard, his kids and the crowd at
the meet all react by crying. When a black neighborhood thug pees in the PDR
pool, Ellis throws punches, then turns on the waterworks again.
need those cues to get Pride's message. Ellis, 59, who still runs the PDR, has
helped scores of swimmers win college scholarships, and the club is now a
national powerhouse. Black swimmers have also made their mark internationally
since he started the PDR team: In 1984 UCLA's Chris Silva became the first
African-American to compete at the Olympic trials, and in 2000 Anthony Ervin
was the first to win an Olympic medal, a gold in the 50-meter freestyle. Ellis
didn't train them, but, Pride shows us, thousands of others have learned to
swim because Ellis, in a very real way, pushed them into the pool.