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‘Catch the Fair One’ Discovery Kali ‘K.O.’ Reis Uses Boxing (and Now Acting) to Fight for Indigenous Rights

"I'd hope to be a trailblazer for people being proud of who they are...in sports or whatever they do," the world champion told IndieWire.

Kali "K.O." Reis in "Catch the Fair One"

Kali “K.O.” Reis in “Catch the Fair One”

IFC

With its outrageous and eye-catching theatrics, making the jump from professional wrestler to movie star has become fairly common. Just look at The Rock, John Cena, and Dave Bautista. Rarely does a professional boxer make the same transition, however, and even fewer women. But world champion Kali “K.O.” Reis, a two-spirit Indigenous boxer and a vocal Indigenous rights advocate, is no stranger to breaking new ground.

Reis is the star and co-writer of “Catch the Fair One,” a new film that sheds much-needed light on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement. Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka and executive produced by Darren Aronofsky, “Catch the Fair One” is a gripping and tightly-wound drama about this overlooked issue, galvanized by a knockout breakout performance from Reis.

Wladyka found Reis on Instagram in 2017, and brought her on as his lead and creative collaborator after seeing her fight and an initial screen test. “From jump, he was really self-aware at the fact that this was an important story to tell, but it wasn’t necessarily his story to tell,” Reis told IndieWire. “And he wanted to really get my perspective from me and also the perspective I had from other families and speaking with different communities, dealing with this issue. … I had a heavy hand in building the characters, building the themes, the colors, location, and it was really an honor for me being a natural artist.”

Reis comes from a musical family, and in addition to painting and drawing, sees boxing as her art. Her visual style is obvious in her many tattoos and facial piercings, including her memorable cheek piercings, which flicker in the light of her warm smile. She and Wladyka connected over both being mixed race; Reis’s Indigenous ancestry includes lineage from the Seaconke, Wampanoag, and Cherokee tribes, and she also has family from the Cape Verde Islands. Wladyka has Polish and Japanese heritage.

“The huge connecting point for us was the fact that we are both biracial. The feelings and experiences we had growing up and not feeling that we belonged in a certain group drew us closer,” the director said in a statement. “Another key aspect, which became a foundation for our story, were the similarities in our family backgrounds. We both have strong mothers and a deep love for our siblings.”

Kali "K.O." Reis in "Catch the Fair One"

“Catch the Fair One”

IFC

The character of Kali in “Catch the Fair One” is clearly inspired by Reis, even taking her first name. She plays a boxer whose career has stalled after her little sister goes missing. Spiraling in grief, she sets out on a dangerous solo mission to find her sister. Kali manages to infiltrate a local criminal network that abducts and traffics Indigenous women and girls, leading her down a bloody and vengeful path. While she does earn some measure of justice, the film’s bleakly ambiguous ending offers little comfort or hand-holding.

“The intent was just to bring the awareness, not in no way shape or form bring an answer to the problem, but to remind and let everybody know that this is a real serious problem that still happens today,” she said. “We didn’t want to do your typical villain … We wanted to make it a little bit more creepy. These are your everyday people that smile and even have families. I think it’s more horrifying to know that the guy next door is hiding this big secret.”

Though it’s unclear whether the final scene is real or imagined, the film ends with Kali triumphantly returning to the boxing ring. Filmed at and in collaboration with the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino, Kali’s entrance is flanked by a rousing song and dance composed by members of the local Seneca tribe. It’s the most colorful sequence in the film, and it’s a powerful and joyous celebration of Native American tradition.

Reis enters all of her fights this way, which makes one feel for her opponents. “We had local people from the tribes, because we were on their land, bless us with what they wanted to do. I never tell them what to sing, I invite them to do this with me and whatever they feel, however they want to dance, is what we do. I never know, I just walk out to the ring and it’s my honor,” said Reis.

The same pride she brings to boxing is evident in her latest career choice. “Catch the Fair One” is both grounded and uplifted by Reis, her impressive performance and the Indigenous activism and knowledge she brought as a writer.

I’ve always had my culture and the pride of my heritage be at the forefront of my boxing,” she said. “Especially being on a mainstream stage, you don’t see anything Native American based at all. So I take the opportunity to have my community out with me before I go to battle. I’d hope to be a trailblazer for people just being proud of who they are, by involving it in sports or whatever they do.”

“Catch the Fair One” opens at the IFC Center on Friday, February 11. 

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