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Thursday, March 22 News

Father and son team up to tell coach's story

Once Michael Critelli heard about the challenges coach Catana Starks faced as the first African-American woman to lead a college men's golf team, he became fixated on telling the world her story.

"I've been a longtime believer in diversity and inclusion and opportunities for women and women of color," said Critelli, who lives in Darien. "The idea that a short, soft-spoken African-American woman could coach successfully a men's team at the college level in a sport that is historically hostile to women and people of color was intellectually interesting in the beginning, because I wondered how she did it.

"The more I learned about her, the more remarkable person she became to me."

"From the Rough" is a movie based on the true story of how Starks overcame adversity as the first African-American woman to coach a Division I men's golf team.

Throughout the story development, Critelli said, one of the most "striking challenges" he and his son, Michael Jr. -- who wrote the screenplay -- encountered was the realization that Starks and the people around her "never understood how unique and remarkable the story was."

"But I did," the 65-year-old Critelli said.

In 1986, Division I Tennessee State University joined the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference. As a result, the swimming and diving team that Starks coached was dropped and replaced with a golf squad. Starks was pegged to coach the golf team with few resources and fierce opposition.

Starks drew from outside the country to establish her team.

She ran into resistance from people inside TSU and the Professional Golfers Association, Critelli said, as well as from a multitude of other people.

"Her job was to create a winning team," he said.

Starks would go on to coach Sam Puryear, the current director of golf operations at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., who was also the the first African-American head men's golf coach at Michigan State University; Robert Dinwiddie, a member of the European Tour, who achieved three consecutive top 10 finishes in South Africa; and Sean Foley, Tiger Woods' swing coach.

In 2005 -- Starks' last season coaching -- the TSU men's golf team won its first National Minority Golf Championship.

In 2006, Critelli acquired the rights to Starks' story. In 2008, Critelli realized he potentially could lose control of the movie's direction by hiring a seasoned screenplay writer, so he turned to his eldest son, who always had been interested in the arts.

"We were just trying to tell a different kind of story," his 28-year-old son said about veering away from the norm of Hollywood films. "I think I was receptive to that. In accordance to the values that we were trying to get across and what the film was trying to be."

But the father-son pair ran into yet another obstacle: No one wanted the film.

Critelli Jr. said it was the inclination of investors in Hollywood to look at the story elements of the film instead of the film as a whole.

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"There are very few movies with female leads," Critelli Jr. said. "There are few movies with largely African-American casts. With all the elements of the story -- even if they liked it -- they couldn't market it. In order to sell it, we have to get it pretty far along."

The film doesn't fit into a particular niche, Critelli Sr. said.

"Hollywood likes to have comparables," Critelli Sr. said. "This didn't fit neatly into a sports movie, a black movie, an urban movie, a religious movie."

What's more, there was a disconnect between the vision of director Pierre Bagley and the Critellis. Bagley sought a darker, edgier film with a coach who swore, according to Critelli Sr. The Critellis didn't see it that way.

"There's a strong feeling that a PG-rated movie is not a serious effort, like it's a Hallmark or Lifetime movie," Critelli Sr. said. "We believe many parents and adults want an intelligent PG-rated movie."

The elder Critelli said he couldn't have worked a day on the movie -- which he personally funded to the tune of more than $5 million -- without his son by his side.

His son, a Darien High School graduate, knew he couldn't walk away from the project.

"It was nice to be in a respectful environment that was good throughout the process," he said, adding that he did have pressure to write a screenplay that he, his father and the director wanted.

Critelli Jr. also wasn't afraid to tell his father that he believed the director's version of the film needed work. That was midway through 2011.

"I kept saying, `You're the only one saying that,' " his father said.

Then, slowly, in fall 2011, cast and crew came forward to express similar opinions.

Critelli Sr. did not come from an entertainment background prior to developing "From the Rough." He was the president and CEO of Pitney Bowes in Stamford until he retired in 2008. He currently serves as the president and CEO of a start-up company called Dossia Consortium.

Critelli Jr. said he has been a writer for a long time. After college, he started work as a head hunter for a technology company, which wanted to promote him, but instead, he quit.

While in high school, he directed one-act plays before moving toward full-length ones and screenplays at the University of Southern California.

His experience with "From the Rough" convinced him that he wants to stay in the entertainment industry.

"This was great because I got to be involved with everyone on the set," he said.

Taraji Henson, Oscar-nominated for her role in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," was cast as Starks. Michael Clarke Duncan, Oscar-nominated for "The Green Mile," was cast as a supporting actor in one of his last roles before his 2012 death. Tom Felton, known for his portrayal of Draco Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" series, plays one of Starks' golfers.

Stamford-native Henry Simmons also appears in the film.

Critelli Jr. said the movie tells a story that normally takes place during the civil rights movement.

"It's a very different take on this type of story," he said. "It's overcoming racism at that time and I think we do a pretty good job of making it contemporary by focusing on the issues that may still be prevalent and in addition to the race aspect, how much of it has to do with sort of class difference and socio-economics. Without going too heavy, it's there and part of the story."

The film will debut Friday, April 25, in 200 theaters nationwide, including the Landmark Theater in Stamford and the SoNo Regent in South Norwalk.

Despite father and son taking a serious approach to the movie, it is meant to be a fun family movie.

"Almost everyone that goes in (to see the movie) walks out saying how good they feel and how funny it is and how well-rounded it is for a family film," Critelli Jr. said. "I don't want people to think it's a heavy film or an ultra-serious film about these issues. It's a really solid sports film -- inspirational film -- that people feel good coming out of. That was always the goal: To make something that inspires people and is a good time at the movies."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews