Joyce Carol Oates, whose writing on boxing may be the finest the sport has inspired, once noted the shortsightedness of people who complain about the brutality of prizefighting while ignoring that the athletes drawn to it often have no other career prospects. But there's something highhanded in the assumption that boxers are sides of beef who do what they do because they are too stupid or too brutal to do anything else. That view ignores that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that in boxing at its best -- like Muhammad Ali's victory over George Foreman in Zaire -- strategy, instinct and action become nearly inseparable.
The documentary "On the Ropes" takes place considerably below the heights of a world heavyweight championship bout. Directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen tell the story of three aspiring boxers, two men and a women, working out of Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy Boxing Center, and of their trainer, Harry Keitt, an intense but good-hearted and deeply practical man trying to steer his charges past the pitfalls that derailed his own dreams.
In its depiction of people attempting to rise above the trials of urban life, this clear-headed, immediately engrossing and ultimately devastating documentary is classically liberal. Without preaching, simply by following these four people, the film sketches in a portrait of the divisions between rich and poor in America, of how natural talent can seem the means of transcending the economic and spiritual dead end of urban life, and of how the judicial system, which is supposed to exist for the protection of all its citizens, seems to make it a special duty to victimize the most vulnerable.
What isn't classically liberal here is Burstein and Morgen's view of boxing. They have no time for the liberal-humanist condescension with which the sport is often regarded, a clichid metaphor for the brutality of the everyday world of the underclass. As taught by Harry Keitt, boxing is not just a means of focus and discipline, it's a way of imparting to his boxers the idea that the place they're born needn't be a life sentence. Even if they never make it out, they will have learned they can accomplish something of their own choosing.
The most promising of Keitt's boxers, 25-year-old George Walton, looks like he will make it out. Preparing to turn pro after a Golden Gloves victory, he's attracted the attention of a slick boxing manager named Mickey Marcello. (With his sleazy, pencil-thin moustache, Marcello bears an uncanny resemblance to Joe Spinell as the hit man Willi Cicci in "The Godfather Part II.") There's no denying George's ability or the power of his punches. And there's no denying that he's too inexperienced to navigate the choices facing him. It's not so much that he pulls away from Harry, but he isn't really asking the right questions about what his new managers will do for him.
Seventeen-year-old Noel Santiago, training for his first Golden Gloves bout, is the most frustrating of Harry's charges. A thin, muscular kid who shows the beginnings of truly impressive speed in the ring, he's also the least focused and confident. And because he can't accept that there's nothing wrong with losing if you've done your best, every defeat leads him to want to pack it in. Harry takes an interest in Noel beyond the ring, riding him about his lousy attendance record at school, showing up at his house when he's been absent from the gym for a few weeks and offering to take him along to the Las Vegas training camp where George will be working out with his new managers.
We see most of "On the Ropes" through Harry's eyes, which are deep and piercing, taking in everything around him. (He never seems to blink.) At 41, he knows that his shots at a title are well behind him, in years he lost to drugs and homelessness, and to the time he did in prison for shooting his cousin. He's the still center of the movie, there for his fighters whenever they want, dispensing good, hard common sense, but also pained because he knows that they will have to make their own decisions and, inevitably, their own mistakes. Harry is indisputably one of the good guys, but a good guy burdened by the knowledge that he will have to see people screw up, perhaps as badly as he did, before they learn.
(Warning: The rest of this review reveals significant details that readers planning
to see the film may want to avoid.)
As "On the Ropes" ends, it's 30-year-old Tyrene Walton who occupies the center of the movie, and it's her story that is the most tragic, the most infuriating, the most bitterly unfair. Working toward her Golden Gloves bout while taking care of her two teenage nieces and living in the same house with them and their father, Randy, an alcoholic crackhead who has contracted AIDS, Tyrene is fiercely determined to keep herself and her nieces above that hopelessness. Early in the film, we see her saying that she wants to be remembered as the one person who came out of her family and made something of herself. And then we watch as that ambition to simple dignity is cruelly shattered.
After Randy makes a crack sale to an undercover cop, the house he shares with Tyrene and his daughters is raided and Tyrene is charged with possession of crack with intent to distribute. It's a bogus charge, but we see how, step by step, she's screwed by the legal system. Her court-appointed lawyer has seen so many cases of this sort that he seems to believe it's futile to put up a defense. But he's far less appalling than the district attorney and judge (both white; the D.A. a woman), who have seen these cases before, too, and whose application of the law makes a mockery of justice. The judge, in particular, leaning back in his chair as if bored, telling the jury to disregard what are clearly relevant pieces of Tyrene's testimony, comes across as verminous. And Tyrene, treating her time on the stand as if it's another bout -- and it is, the fight of her life -- can't understand that her agitation isn't helping her case. All she wants is to tell the truth of her situation and no one is interested. After her tearful, wrenching appeal to the court, the judge goes ahead with business as usual, and in my head I heard the questions that Paul Newman in "Absence of Malice" addresses to a reporter who has caused the suicide of his closest friend: "Couldn't you see her? Didn't you like her? Couldn't you just put down your goddamned pen and stop scribbling and see her?"
If I haven't discussed the technique of "On the Ropes," which was shot on video, it's because Burstein and Morgen don't let anything come between us and the people on screen. Their modest approach doesn't do anything to prepare you for the impact of the their film. Walking out of the theater, I felt so bereft that I couldn't speak. And it doesn't hurt any less thinking about the movie now, as I write this. Harry Keitt is the closest thing to a hero that the realities of the world "On the Ropes" depicts will allow. But it's Tyrene Manson who haunts you. A movie that brings you as close as this one does to her, that lets you see every ounce of hurt that Tyrene's trashed dreams cost her, can wound you in ways far deeper than conventional movies can. Looking into her eyes you feel like you've been hit with a knockout punch stronger than anything thrown in the ring.