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T.J. Martin was nominated for Hollywood’s highest award. If he wins, he would become the first African American to win an Academy Award as director for best documentary.

Kam Williams | 2/8/2012, 8:42 a.m.
T.J. Martin (L) and Daniel Lindsay (R) directed the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Undefeated” . Dimensional Films

T.J. Martin was nominated for Hollywood’s highest award. If he wins, he would become the first African American to win an Academy Award as director for best documentary.

Born on September 7, 1979, Thomas McKay Martin Jr. was raised in Seattle and graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in American cultural studies. In 2002, T.J. made an auspicious directorial debut with “A Day in the Hype of America,” which won the Best Documentary award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

He next shot a short entitled “Loves Martha” before making “On the Rocks,” a docudrama about drug and alcohol addiction. T.J. collaborated with Dan Lindsay on his latest movie, “Undefeated,” an inspirational documentary chronicling the selfless efforts made by Memphis’ Manassas High School football coach Bill Courtney on behalf of underprivileged members of his team.  

The film has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. Here, T.J. talks about the possibility of becoming the first African American director to win an Oscar.

What interested you in making “Undefeated?”

I was really drawn to two things. First, my directing partner, Dan Lindsay, and I are interested in making documentaries where the action unfolds in front of the camera versus a talking head piece.

We saw this as an opportunity to make a coming-of-age film that was much more experiential and less anecdotal. Second, I feel that oftentimes the stories that come out of neighborhoods like North Memphis are sensationalized pieces exploiting the pitfalls of the community.

I saw this film as an opportunity to show both the good and the bad, and to really celebrate the community and all of the possibilities that lay before it.

How did you come to hear about coach Bill Courtney?

Our producer, Rich Middlemas, graduated from the University of Tennessee. He follows their recruiting every year. In 2009, he came upon a recruit named O.C. Brown. He had never heard of him and decided to do a little research.

He Googled his name and the first thing that appeared was an article from “The Commercial Appeal,” a local Memphis paper, about his living part time with his grandmother in North Memphis and part time with his offensive line coach in East Memphis.

He had never worked in the documentary world, so he sent the article to Dan and me. We thought that it was an interesting enough story to see if there was potential for a feature length documentary. While trying to track down O.C. Brown we met coach Bill, and from there everything changed!

Why do you think he was so successful in turning Manassas High School’s football program around?

I think he was successful for a few reasons. He understands that the sport of football cannot be the foundation for building and grooming young men. As he states in the film, “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” [Also,] he stayed committed to his student athletes.

One of the biggest issues we found in that community was a lack of consistency in the kids’ lives. Bill not only said that he would turn the program around but he also showed up everyday and proved to them and the community that he was committed to the cause.