“That’s the funny thing about being in love with boxing,” writes journalist, boxing promoter and amateur pugilist Jonathan Rendall in This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own: A Journey to the End of Boxing. “It’s actually more of a faith. It’s not enough just for you to have it; you have to entice others into sharing your vision, which you bend to its most attractive truth-like distortion — which, of course, means emphasizing your own doubts, like some cunning evangelist.”
For a sport that couldn’t be more primal, boxing fuels an almost spiritual devotion, and some true believers keep the faith by making movies. Two outstanding documentaries, On the Ropes and Shadow Boxers, explore boxing as a path to inner and outer transformation, and violence as a way to grace.
On the Ropes (recently released on home video) focuses on trainer Harry Keitt and three of his fighters, and recalls Hoop Dreams in the way it contrasts the desire for glory with the harsh realities of life in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. With endless patience and resolve, Harry provides guidance to his troubled amateur hopefuls while battling his own formidable demons. What Harry is looking for from boxing is absolution, redemption, a way to break away from past mistakes and eke out a new life. It’s the same for George Walton, a sweet-faced contender with a killer punch on the cusp of turning pro, and the energetic but erratic teenager Noel Santiago, who wants to know what it’s like to win.
Co-directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen show these dreams in the light of obstacles so numerous and profound it’s a wonder anyone clasps the Holy Grail of a championship belt. Of Harry’s boxers, the most ferociously dedicated is Tyrene Manson, and the turn her life takes just when she should be fighting in the venerable Golden Gloves competition is the definition of tragedy.
What On the Ropes shares with Shadow Boxers is an event — the Golden Gloves, which became open to women in 1995 — and an attitude: Winning means surviving and thriving by discipline, and funneling everything you are into a specific do-or-die moment. Director Katya Bankowsky’s superb examination of female boxers shatters preconceived notions through insightful commentary fused with intensive training and fight footage.
During the course of Shadow Boxers (playing on the Sundance Channel, starting Feb. 16), women fighters are shown being questioned by a sports media still treating them as freaks. That’s the outsider’s point of view, but the interviews gathered by Bankowsky (she and composer Zoël are two of the women shown working out in the ring) reveal the complex — and often surprising — nature of women deciding to embrace their forbidden aggressive side.
While she includes brief profiles of a number of amateurs (smartly detailing their professions along with weight category and title wins), Bankowsky’s primary focus is the woman whose talent and sheer charisma may elevate women’s boxing from undercard entertainment into a major sport: Lucia Rijker. There’s something serenely powerful about the intelligent, articulate, Amsterdam-born Rijker, and to see her in the ring (Bankowsky documents her road to a Women’s International Boxing Federation title fight) is to witness why enthusiasts insist this sport is as much about skill and finesse as brute force.
These documentaries reflect a larger trend in boxing movies, which have begun to deviate from the two dominant models: the boxer as antihero (Raging Bull) or the boxer as triumphant underdog (Rocky). There’s always been an undercurrent in these films about the struggle for dignity, and that rises to the surface in documentaries such as Southpaw (part of last year’s Shooting Gallery series), about an Irish gypsy boxer competing in the Olympics, or features such as The Hurricane, where real-life contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter draws on his discipline and inner resolve to survive decades of wrongful imprisonment.
It’s even there in a mainstream entertainment such as Play It to the Bone, where two past-their-prime boxers and best friends get a major undercard fight battling each other. Despite the corruption and capricious nature of managers and fight officials (a recurring theme in these films), this motley duo give their all, devoting themselves all over again to this demanding pursuit.
In Girlfight (out on video March 27), a young Latina with a lot of rage and not many prospects finds that channeling her anger into the discipline of boxing maps out a new future. The three Latino brothers in The Price of Glory fight to fulfill their father’s thwarted dream of a successful boxing career, with bitter consequences. And the Showtime series “Resurrection Blvd.” follows this same storyline, but deals more astutely with the complex dynamics of family and the fight game, as a large Los Angeles family fractures and heals while following the fate of its boxer siblings.
So where will boxing movies go next? The big-screen Ali (opening Dec. 7) may provide the answer. Tellingly, the film focuses on the heavyweight champion’s younger years, when the now-silent Muhammad Ali had a voice that rattled America, and this epitome of grace and agility in the ring could still float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org