The Flatbush Pictures crew whittled 500 hours of footage down to an 80-minute documentary. And, on Wednesday night, their efforts were rewarded with a standing ovation inside New York City's Sunshine Cinema during the Tribeca Film Festival.
The story they told was, in part, about the funding crisis which the School District of Philadelphia faced last year, and continues to face today.
It was also about the Martin Luther King High School Cougars football team's journey, starting with a worrisome merger with rival Germantown High and ending with MLK's first-ever Public League championship and the subsequent National Signing Day pep rally.
Much of the documentary touched on first-year coach Ed Dunn's struggle to keep his team collectively focused and motivated to succeed on and off the field.
The film's focus
At its heart, though, "We Could Be King" centered on several months of divergent trials and tribulations facing two players, with footage culled from hours spent at the players' homes in Northwest Philadelphia.
They were Dontae Angus, a behemoth of a lineman who battled complacency, memories of childhood bullying and academic challenges that led to the disappearance of a University of Florida scholarship offer, and Salvatore Henderson, who spent much of the season behind bars.
"I was trying to suck it up, but I wanted to cry," said Angus of watching the premiere of a film that will be shown at the West Oak Lane school Thursday and to national audiences Saturday night on ESPN2.
For his part, Henderson saw the fact that private, personal struggles were now part of the public domain as a valuable "lesson" and motivation to move past a situation in which he was tangentially involved in a street robbery.
"I thought it was outstanding," said Superintendent William Hite, among those in the standing-room-only crowd.
After film sponsor DICK'S Sporting Goods presented him with a $250,000 check as a donation — through a "Sports Matter" mission to keep high-school sports funded — Hite was asked how it would be dispersed.
"King first. Whatever they need," he said of giving the Cougars dibs before the money funds programs elsewhere. "They earned this."
True grit meets the red carpet
While the film matched the gritty feel of King's muddy, non-manicured practice field behind the Stenton Avenue school (not to mention the uplifting tone of a gridiron turnaround that bordered on redemption), Wednesday night's premiere did not.
There was a camera-friendly red carpet event at which not only Cougars players, coaches and Principal William Wade, and the documentary team, posed, but so too did actor Michael B. Jordan (of "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights"), New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz and ESPN's Mike Golic, who emceed a post-movie Q&A with Angus, Henderson and Dunn.
The players themselves looked starstruck, but they turned out to be the stars of the show. And that, said director Judd Ehrlich, was the whole point.
"The joy you can see in their faces, that's why you make these kinds of movies in the first place," he said. "I think we found a story that people are never going to forget."
Dick's CEO Edward W. Stack offered further motivation for his company's involvement.
"To eliminate these [sports] programs would be catastrophic for these kids," he said.
For her part, Tribeca Enterprises Executive Vice President Paula Weinstein called out Dunn, who started the season as a volunteer head coach thanks to a doomsday-budget layoff, in front of the packed room.
"You," she said, "are a miracle of a human being."
The film starts off with a brief examination of the GHS/MLK rivalry, in the context of foes being brought together because of the district's dire financial situation.
Then, it alternates between team practices (featuring friction between players during the early phases of the team-building experiment), home and school lives and game footage.
At their narrative peaks, Angus is shown — thanks to assistant coach Michelle "Mickey" Grace, a GHS alum who was the first female to get a carry on a city football team — getting a season-shifting pep talk from his hero, Sharrif Floyd, a George Washington High grad who now plays for the Minnesota Vikings.
Meanwhile, Henderson's voice is heard on a collect call to Dunn from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center in which he tells the 27-year-old coach he considers family that "I'm looking forward to touching grass again."
(Dunn, a math teacher, formerly worked at Germantown High, which was one of 24 schools closed last June as part of the School District of Philadelphia's facilities master plan.)
He's then shown getting released from jail, getting fitted for an ankle bracelet at home and, finally, getting clearance to return to football, only to suffer a concussion on the last practice before the Cougars' playoff run commenced.
"I'm hopeful that I won't be in the wrong place at the wrong time again," the rising senior said to Golic after the screening. "Hopefully, next year, I'll do better and go to college."
Golic — the former Eagle who now co-hosts a national ESPN radio show daily — also had some kind words for Dunn, whose two-year-old son's appearance on camera drew adoring reactions from the audience.
"I wish I could have played for you," he said.
The film, which will air at 8 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2 and run at theaters in NYC and Los Angeles for Academy Award-consideration purposes, was greenlit, in part, to raise awareness for the sporting-goods company's "$25 million multi-year commitment to support youth athletics programs."
With the doomsday budget initially axing public-league sports altogether, King was a perfect fit.
"The reality is that these are often the very programs that make kids want to go to school, that build their confidence and pride," said Ehrlich, a two-time Emmy nominee and lifelong New Yorker. "Without them, what is left?"
The answer that the documentary provides is simple: With them, players from once-rival high schools can band together to win championships on the field, and find direction off of it.
"The less tangible impact of sports is what impressed me most during my time with the Cougars," Ehrich said. "I know that they will carry their motto 'humble, hungry and hardworking' through football seasons and throughout their lives."
"We Could Be King" will be shown Thursday at MLK High, 6100 Stenton Ave. in West Oak Lane.
A 1 p.m. screening will be held for students; a 6 p.m. screening is for the community at large.
At 8 p.m. Saturday, it will be aired on ESPN2 (Xfinity: 16, 851; FiOS: 74, 574; DirecTV: 209; Dish: 144).