Now in its fifth season, Netflix’s Last Chance U follows a finely honed formula. It covers the football season, and the personal lives and backgrounds of an American community college football team at Laney College. These young athletes have enormous potential, and many have been raised on expectations of a footballing career, but they are stuck playing lower league football because of personal issues, injuries, and setbacks on and off the pitch. Community college football is their last chance at a prestigious Division 1 scholarship, which would give them both a free education and a path to the NFL.

In my only experience watching the Super Bowl, I struggled to stay awake through ad-breaks and the stop and start of play. However, director and executive producer Greg Whiteley makes football gripping and accessible. Games are trimmed down to a thrilling highlight reel of attack and defence, replete with slow-motion tackles and hair’s breadth evasions, all overlaid with a thumping rap-heavy soundtrack. But it is Last Chance U’s human side, and its exploration of masculinity, community, and the American Dream, that makes it a compelling watch.

For these players, results carry far more weight than in similar documentaries such as Amazon’s All or Nothing. Unlike the millionaire footballers at Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, for Laney College’s athletes, any game could be the difference between minimum-wage hardship and a full-ride scholarship at a prestigious college, with a potential NFL career to follow. Last Chance U makes this struggle compelling and exciting, and emphasises the players’ genuine passion for football, which goes far beyond its material rewards. However, it is also a critical look at a system that pushes young men to sacrifice their health for a career and affordable education.

“Underneath a protective layer of ego and bravado, the young men in season five are sensitive and serious.”

American football is a predominantly black, working-class sport (~70% of NFL players are black); even more so now that affluent white families are pulling their kids out of football, due to the risks of concussion and brain damage. Season five is set in Oakland, California, marking a change from previous seasons set in small-town Kansas and Mississippi. Once called the ‘Harlem of the West’ for its thriving jazz and blues scene, the founding city of the Black Panthers is now increasingly gentrified, white, and unaffordable. The American Dream feels especially elusive, with players facing long commutes to college, minimum wage jobs, and sleeping in cars and on couches, all of which we see in fly-on-the-wall segments.

Laney College’s team is coached by John Beam, a grizzled, moustachioed Korean-American. Beam could have gone to a more prestigious Division 1 college, but chooses to stay here instead. He is a warm-hearted, paternal figure, who can no longer lift weights with his players in the gym, but still dad-dances to nineties rap as Laney celebrates a victory. He had to adapt his old-school masculinity to a younger generation becoming ever more in touch with their mental health. Beam moans jokingly to his therapist wife Cindy about “today’s kids”, saying that if “you just look at them wrong, they melt and have mental health breakdowns”. She trains him to help with their anxiety and stress – a learning curve for all.


Mountain View

Cuties – its bark worse than its bite?

Underneath a protective layer of ego and bravado, the young men in season five are sensitive and serious, carrying adult responsibilities. Quarterback Dior shares his split from his abusive, hyper-masculine father, who beat him with a belt, shaved his head, and made him go to school in girls’ clothes as a humiliating punishment. 300 lb offensive lineman Nu’u takes his infant daughters to his college classes in a stroller, and his teammates play with them and dote on them. It’s hard not to root intensely for these young men, even against teams whose players are probably just as disadvantaged, hard-working, and deserving of a finite pool of scholarships.

After every episode, Last Chance U will leave you torn between watching the next one in your pyjamas, or going out to do some star jumps after Coach Beam barks at you to get your sh*t together.