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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
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.
T.J. Martin (L) and Daniel Lindsay (R) directed the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Undefeated” . (Photo: 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.

I was always impressed at how Bill treated the students with respect and spoke to them like young adults and not like they were little kids. He didn’t assume they would respect him simply because he’s an adult. He put in the time and effort and earned that trust and respect from the students as well as the community.

Do you think he’s had an effect on his players as a role model that will last long past their playing days?

Absolutely! Good coaches often become surrogate parental figures and can be very influential, especially during the adolescent years. One thing that stood out to us that is not seen in the film much is how often Bill would hug his players and tell them that he loved them.

This would happen every day to just about every single player on the team. There’s no doubt that when Bill takes the time to share that level of intimacy and respect with his players, it has a positive, long-lasting effect.

What message do you hope people will take away from the movie?

We set out to make an intimate, coming-of-age film that is, more than anything, a human interest piece. With that said, we never shy away from the race and class dynamics that are very prevalent in the film.

I would hope that after being emotionally drawn into the human aspect of the story, the film can inspire a greater dialogue about the serious divide between the haves and have nots in this country, as well as looking at the ties between race and class and how they affect each other.

How do you feel about the possibility of becoming the first black director to win an Academy Award?

First and foremost, I’m extremely honored for such recognition. At the same time, I would have a hard time claiming such an achievement since I’m half black. My experience navigating the world is night and day different than that of someone whose parents are both black.

I personally identify much more with being mixed race. It would be hard for me to accept such an achievement without also acknowledging my Native American, Scandinavian, Chinese and Jewish roots as well! I definitely think it warrants a greater conversation. I wonder if there’s some kind of designation for being the first mixed-race director to win for best documentary? Probably not.

Is there any question no one ever asks you that you wish someone would?

Do you identify as being black?

Are you happy?

Good question. I’m not sure I can quantify happiness.

When was the last time you had a good laugh?

When I saw that I was nominated for an Academy Award.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Not sure I can put it in print.

What was the last book you read?

“Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami.

The music maven Heather Covington question: What was the last song you listened to?

Can’t answer it. I have music playing all of the time. It’s continuous.

What is your favorite dish to cook?

A little stir fry that I like to call “World’s Famous.” No one else thinks it’s famous, let alone good.

What excites you?

Music, music, music.

Who is your favorite clothes designer?

Can’t settle on one. Plus, I’m terrible with brands. Whatever fits right. Good style is more about how you rock it and less about whose name is on it.

What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?

The one thing I’m really bad at is making money. I think my best business decision is still to come and I’m sure my worst will follow shortly after. [Chuckles]

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?


If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

A healthy, non-intrusive and nonviolent way to maintain population control.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

Hanging out with my first stuffed animal, a polar bear named Jewels.

When do you feel the most content?

Under headphones in a foreign country.

 Who is the person who led you to become the person you are today?

I don’t think I can attribute that to just one person. I bounced around a lot growing up, living with various family members and friends. I think I gleaned a little bit of inspiration and insight from everyone that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with.

Oh, and the movie “The Color Purple” changed my life … so maybe I should thank Spielberg!

What key quality do you believe all successful people share?

The ability to learn from your mistakes.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Embrace failure.

How do you want to be remembered?

I’m still trying to figure that one out. I would assume that when I have kids, I would like to be remembered as a being good father.