The year is 1968 and Jim Gregory (played by Caitlyn Jenner, back when she was still credited as Bruce) is a hotshot high school quarterback who has just been offered a scholarship to play at Grambling University. With their star quarterback in his final year, Grambling needs a good backup. Meanwhile, Jim dreams of playing in the NFL and is excited to play for a program that’s known for producing professional football players. Grambling’s legendary head coach, Eddie Robinson (Harry Belafonte), is eager for Jim to join the team.
The only problem is that Grambling is a historically black college and Jim Gregory is very much white. In fact, Jim will not only be the first white player to ever join the Grambling Tigers but he will also be the only white student enrolled at the school. From the minute that Jim arrives on campus, he discovers that he’s not wanted. The rest of the team sees him as an interloper and they resent that he took a scholarship that could have gone to a black player. Meanwhile, the local whites distrust Jim because he’s a student at a black college.
Based on a true story, this is a football film that doesn’t feature much football. Jim doesn’t get to play in a game until the very end of the season and, even then, he’s only on the field for a few minutes. He doesn’t win the game or even lead a scoring drive. Instead of focusing on the usual sports movie clichés, Grambling’s White Tiger instead explores Jim experiencing, for the first time, what it’s like to be a minority. Jim eventually wins over his teammates through his hard work but he still remains an outsider for the entire film. When he goes into town, a saleswoman and her boss initially offer him a discount on a pair of boots until they discover that he plays football not for Louisiana Tech but instead for Grambling. When he first meets the parents of his new girlfriend, he’s told that an interracial relationship will never last and is advised to move on. When the funeral of Martin Luther King is broadcast on television, all Jim’s teammates walk out of the room one-by-one until Jim is left sitting alone.
In typical made-for-network-TV fashion, Grambling’s White Tiger explores important issues without delving into them too deeply. (For instance, the fact that Jim’s spot on the team is potentially coming at the expense of a black student is an intriguing issue that is mentioned at the start of the film but never really dwelled upon.) Harry Belafonte is perfect as the stern but compassionate Coach Robinson while LeVar Burton is likable as the only member of the team to initially welcome Jim. Jenner, however, is thoroughly miscast and several years too old to play a college freshman. As an actor, Jenner is stiff and awkward but the true story of Jim Gregory is interesting enough that the film will hold the attention of any football fans in the audience.