Passion behind lens in ‘Pride’ 

There are plenty of emotional diving boards to walk out on in life, but only a few come with an exit clause requiring tremendous leaps of faith.

Nobody knows this better than Sunu Gonera, whose directorial debut, "Pride," is about holding your head up high and trusting in the unknown.

The film’s theme seems to mirror some of the Zimbabwean-born director’s own life experiences.

"I remember coming home in September of 2005, and my wife had put our South African house on the market," Gonera recalls. "She said, ‘We’re selling everything, we’re going to the states. If you don’t do it now, you’ll never do it. We can always buy houses, but you can’t buy dreams.’"

Gonera’s big dream was to direct movies. He cashed in a banking career to lens edgy commercials through his own production company — dubbed "Faith Productions," funny enough.

Eventually, his work found its way into Nicole Kidman’s production camp and along came "Pride," based on the real-life experiences of Philadelphia swim coach Jim Ellis, who founded and coached an African-American swim team comprising underprivileged youth, in the early-’70s in a run-down parks and rec facility.

"I related to the whole underdog element," Gonera says. "I grew up in the townships of Zimbabwe and sports was my way out. I played rugby and cricket, which for a black person, was not normal, because everybody played soccer. So I’ve always felt like an outsider. I loved the script but I wanted to tell a really personal story. I didn’t want a Hollywood version of the story."

Terrence Howard morphs into the über-focused Ellis, Bernie Mac and Tom Arnold co-star in more dramatic roles. Kevin Michael

Smith’s and Michael Gozzard’s story offers enough for the film’s young actors to shine in solid, believable performances.

Gonera keeps things real in "Pride," perhaps as homage to Ellis’ pioneering spirit.

"One of the things I responded to with Jim was that he was such an ordinary guy who still is doing these great things 33 years later," Gonera says. "I mean, when you hear that some of his kids from the team became big Wall Street bankers and attorneys, and had scholarships to colleges, you realize that he’s done an incredible thing. I really related to him."

"Pride" also illuminates the racism of the ’60s and ’70s.

"In Africa, racism was legal for many years, so I grew up with it," Gonera says. "I married a white woman and I had to deal with racism on a very personal level — people throwing bricks through your house, things like that. So when I read the script, that element didn’t surprise me. But I was determined to be authentic and to show different sides of people. I didn’t want it to be that any white person is racist, because that’s not true."

As for capturing Ellis’s dynamic coaching ability on screen, Gonera drew from his own experiences with his former rugby coach in Africa.

"My coach said, ‘You are a tiger. Don’t forget it. Don’t forget it!’ And he pushed me hard. And he always used to say to me, ‘Soar like an eagle.’ And I believed him."

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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