The idea of sport existing as a unifier offers comfort in these seemingly divided times. Beginning in 1925, the “East LA Classic” homecoming football game between rivals James A. Garfield High School and Theodore Roosevelt High School has grown to become one of the most popular annual high school games played in the country. In The All-Americans, director Billy McMillin explores this historic rivalry against the backdrop of the challenges imposed upon each school’s predominantly Latino population.
As its title suggests, much of the narrative in The All-Americans centers around the very question of what it means to be an American. Using soundbites from far right commentators, McMillin juxtaposes the hate too often spewed in the media with the faces of those most affected by the fear-mongering. Football is often seen as “America’s Game,” while Latino immigrants are often told to go back to “their” country, even those who have lived here their entire lives.
Several scenes depict classroom discussions of America’s uneasy relationship with nativism and the idea of the country serving as a “melting pot.” The students bring fascinating perspectives to the table, gently pushing back on the very concept of the American Dream. The All-Americans features several people who are undocumented, perpetually living with the concern that they may one day face deportation. Though Trump’s name is never uttered, he remains a looming presence throughout much of the narrative.
The film does an excellent job of explaining the importance of the East LA Classic, as well as the role that football plays in shaping the players’ lives. For most, playing on the team doesn’t carry any significant collegiate opportunities. Roosevelt’s coach speaks of his team’s 100% graduation rate, ensuring that players will leave school with a degree and the opportunities that come with it.
A few students from each team are given an added focus. One of these players became a father himself, juggling school, football, and providing for his kid while trying to lead a relatively normal life. Several scenes depict the player’s extended families, giving a broader sense of perspective to their stories, as well as the importance of the Classic itself. Several players explicitly remark that they started playing football just to be a part of this specific game, carrying the lineage of the near century-old event.
With time dedicated to the history of the classic, the actual game itself, both teams, their coaches, several players, and a broader discussion of the politics of immigration, The All-Americans aims to tackle quite a bit of material. Its runtime of just over ninety minutes doesn’t exactly lend itself well to all of these objectives, but McMillin has a strong grasp of pacing. The film never lingers too long in one area while giving the audience all it needs to follow along. One doesn’t even need to understand football to enjoy the film.
The All-Americans is a touching documentary, one that never tries to paint a false sense of finality by the end. Narrative resolution is a tough proposition when dealing with a bunch of high school students who will face plenty of greater hardships than what they’ve encountered on the field. Their lives are just beginning. The film does an excellent job of covering the role that the Classic played in their lives while never losing sight of the fact that in the end, it’s just a game.