Most boxing narratives follow a comfortable, predictable formula. There’s an underdog (maybe his name is Rocky or Mike Tyson or Jimmy Braddock), and over the course of the story we watch him battle against all odds in order to ultimately become the champion they were destined to be. And when the story is over, we’re meant feel inspired, determined, perhaps even in awe of the simplistic in the beauty of the “American Dream.”
It’s a formula in the genre that may be familiar but that’s worked well, both in narrative features and documentaries – most recently in the documentary “Champs,” which chronicled the careers of Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, and Bernard Hopkins. The story there was indeed an inspirational one, but the running, striking theme that linked the stories of all three men was the effects that poverty and above all else race had in their journeys toward greatness.
The same theme is at the heart of “T-Rex”, first time filmmakers Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari’s new boxing doc which profiles a refreshingly new kind of protagonist for the boxing champion narrative. The film follows 17-year-old Claressa Shields, the youngest female boxer ever to compete in the Olympics. Cooper and Canepari initially had ambitions to film a documentary on teenage athletes but, upon meeting the enigmatic Shields in 2012, shifted the focus entirely on her, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign in order to get the film made.
From the very first moments of the doc, it’s almost instantly clear why Shields was chosen as a subject. Just turned 17 at the time the documentary began filming, she’s very much just a regular teenage girl in many ways, but with an added intensity that makes her endlessly fascinating to watch on screen as the film chronicles her preparation for the first ever boxing competition for women held at the 2012 summer Olympics.
Much of the storytelling here relies on the old sports movie tropes of using physical achievements as a metaphor for overcoming societal odds. We’re introduced to the dilapidated, economically crippled town that Claressa calls home – Flint, Michigan, recognizable to those who’ve seen Michael Moore’s bleak images of it in “Bowling for Columbine.”
The harsh realities of Claressa’s life in Flint are explored, including a complicated home life and her formerly incarcerated father who, despite introducing her to boxing in the first place, disapproves of her lofty aspirations because she is a girl. But juxtaposed against the harshness (brilliantly illustrated in a sleek and stark visual style) is the warmth of Claressa as a subject.
Nicknamed “T-Rex” because of her ferocity, her staggering work ethic, her passion, her desire, and her sheer physical power are not only impressive but, yes, inspiring. But this thankfully isn’t is a documentary designed only to pull at heartstrings – it ticks several boxes but it also transcends them, never condescending in its approach to its subject or her surroundings.
Indeed, more interesting and enlightening than watching Claressa’s struggle to succeed is the eventual fall out of that success, and the repercussions of making history. The physical hurdles are great, but it’s the emotional hurdles we see Claressa grapple with in real time as she navigates the world of fame, endorsements, commercial deals, and family obligations. And while the filmmakers never delve quite too deep, ultimately relying on a more cautiously optimistic tone, it’s refreshing nonetheless to see these ideas, especially around black femininity and girlhood, explored on screen.
If other boxing narratives have focused on the simplistic beauty of the American Dream, this documentary strives to explore the far messier complexities of it, the myth of it. This, after all, is what makes stories of overcoming adversity ultimately more human – the understanding that oftentimes becoming a champion is only the beginning of an even bigger survival story.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.