By C.J. Hirschfield
Throughout the world, the phrase “Oakland football” conjures up images of Raider Nation, fans who glory in looking as terrifying and tough as they can. But while the Raiders are gone, the Laney College Eagles are still flying high. And thanks to the latest season of a popular Netflix series, a new image of the city’s football can emerge: A kinder, gentler one, that better reflects what we locals call Town Love. And the coach is Hella Oakland, focusing on community and guiding his scrappy (read that working-class) team members to be successful—in sports, and in life.
The Emmy-nominated documentary series from executive producer and director Greg Whiteley is called Last Chance U, so named because earlier episodes followed struggling students who were required to attend East Mississippi Community College in the hopes it would get them back on the right track.
Coach John Beam, Laney’s Head Football Coach and Athletic Director for eight seasons, doesn’t think that the title applies to Laney, a local community college whose Bowl-winning football team boasts an impressive 90% scholarship and transfer rate to 4-year colleges.
Coach Beam has lived in Oakland for 38 years, previously serving as Head Football Coach at Skyline High School for 22 years and says he’s proud to say that he’s “never been called out” over all of that time. The reason becomes clear as the series reveals a man who can be brutally honest (“Football might be fun for you, but right now it might be over for you”), but who clearly has the best interests of each and every one of the Laney Eagles in mind. “Your swag needs to be earned,” he says as he pushes them to be their personal best. Independence and self-sufficiency are the goals; the winning is part of the community and skills-building process—and a way to earn a coveted scholarship that could transform their lives forever.
“This city produces beautiful people; competitive and resilient,” says Coach. He’s seen a change in recent years– kids who once all lived in Oakland are now spread out across the Bay Area, unable to afford the city’s high housing costs. Now “his” kids come home to play from places like Antioch, Stockton and Tracy, bringing with them setbacks, homelessness, injuries and family issues while getting support of fellow team members who take pride in being “Laney Built.”
“One band, one sound,” is how Coach describes it, and Laney’s compassionate administrative staff goes above and beyond to help the students’ issues around mental health, housing and academics.
The series boasts topflight production values, showcasing the beauty of the school’s downtown location. A number of the crew members were local, and Coach says that that connection made a difference over the nearly six months of intense filming, often 6 days a week. Although Coach wasn’t expecting the “huge” crew of 30, he says that everyone ended up breaking bread together, and sharing triumphs and losses both on and off the field.
When Covid hit, there was still more production to be done, so some follow-up interviews were conducted via Zoom.
A vibrant scene that illustrates Laney’s special swag is one in which the team’s marching band would typically be featured in the series. Since Laney has no band, we are treated to the powerful music of Oakland-born drummer Chukwudi Hodge, tattooed, in the middle of the field, alone, on a beautiful night. The series’ thoughtfully curated score features both old and new school Oakland favorites, from Tower of Power to Too $hort.
Documentaries often offer closing credit updates on the people who have been featured in the film. At the end of this season’s Last Chance U, we see the beautiful faces of success, with information on where each student will be continuing their education. The stories of Nu’u, RJ, Dior, and Rejzohn will stay with you.
For football fans who are anxiously awaiting to hear exactly how the NFL Covid-era season will proceed, Last Chance U offers an opportunity to see some fine football played with passion and heart, coached by someone who’s produced over 20 NFL players—seven of whom have participated in the Super Bowl.
And for those of us who just love a good documentary that both entertains and inspires, Last Chance U is for us as well.
Last Chance U: Laney College season 5 is currently available on Netflix. (Episode guide at link)
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”