It’s 2016. A young black man makes his way to The New Parkway Theater in Oakland to attend The Women’s Sports Film Festival.
His name is Dap. He is not the star of this story.
Once the lights go down and the big screen comes to life, he’s transported to another time.
It’s now 2012. A brilliant, muscular, incredibly talented, and warm-hearted black girl from Flint is trying to qualify for the Olympics in London.
Her name is Claressa “T-Rex” Shields. She is the star of this story.
Now, I’ll be honest: I cried a few times watching this film. Stories relating to father-child relationships always get me. But more on that
What you need to know is that Claressa is a force. To their credit, directors Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper make that known very early in T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold. At first, it’s clear that they’re here to tell Claressa’s story as it pertains to the Olympics. However, they don’t let the film settle into that narrative and end there.
This was refreshing, because young sports phenom movies often center so much on the road to glory, the pain and triumph, the sacrifice and trials. But one thing that often gets lost in those stories is the humanity of the person (or in this case, people) highlighted — instead of understanding these young people as people, we understand them as the sum of their athletic prowess and what they mean to The Culture (see: nationally, locally, etc).
In this process of making them young gods that we flail to idolize, we cut them off from the very things that make them who they are: their faults, their vulnerability. You know, the human stuff.
Again, thankfully, that’s where T-Rex veers off. After spending half its runtime on Claressa’s battles to a truly historic moment in time, the film actually tapers down into a very personal narrative. And note that I’m not trying to downplay the momentousness of that moment: Claressa is the first female boxing Olympian to compete and win, ever. Ever. That’s big. From the ring to the hotel, it’s a drama unto itself. Watching her fight women nearly twice her age on the Olympic stage, and compete with grace, is a marvel. At the same time, to see her simultaneously refuse to take shit from anyone, including Jason, is hilarious. For as much as she is Ali in her bravado and wit, she is Serena in the way she’s simultaneously snappy, playful, and doggedly determined. Kudos to the directors again, for capturing the dynamism of these moments.
Yet for all that, once everything is said and done in London, she comes home and literally asks: “now what?”
This other side, the “now what?,” ends up consisting of some powerful foreboding about Flint’s water crisis, family drama, and the usual issues of a 17-year old girl in a small town. And I think that’s kind of the beauty of this film. As grandiose as her life story and ambition is, Claressa’s still a young woman just trying to assert herself in a world that’s always trying to tell her what she can or can’t do. This comes up time and time again in T-Rex — from her surrogate father and trainer, Jason, telling her she can’t date the love of her life, to American Boxing Association reps telling her to tone down her language in interviews in order to be “more attractive” to potential sponsors.
While the former is much more tenuous than the latter, they all act as stressors on Claressa. She does however, after being singularly focused on boxing for so long, speak near the end of the film with the clarity of an adolescent who has finally hit some milestones: “boxing keeps me grounded, and my family helps me know I’m just a regular person still.”
This distinction, that she defines, is more powerful than just a simple boxing phenom arc — it presents Claressa’s very human self-determination in a way that T-Rex’s cinematic siblings fail to. And it’s only one of many — earlier in the film, she clearly states that getting out from under poverty and getting paid via sponsors and whoever else isn’t actually about the money. Rather, she says, it’s about being respected as a black girl, as a woman, and as a boxer.
That groundedness is what brings the film home. Because in the midst of dealing with her family, the potential of the 2016 Olympics, and navigating life, she clearly knows who she is and why she is. The determination she exhibits is so strong that it made the crowd clap at every bout shown, even though we all could’ve easily googled the results (and the story) before the film.
To see this young woman stand in her truth, grow because of it, and be celebrated without qualifiers in her hometown, is all I needed. And hopefully, it’s all the recommendation you need to see it too.
Catch the film on your local PBS station or online now at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/videos/t-rex-fight-gold-full-film/
*Update 8.29.16: This film is also now on Netflix!
The Original Homeboy with a Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. @dapisdope