It’s a tribute to the power of storytelling in T-Rex that I feel like I know this young woman.
I only caught one film at the Athena Festival today, but it was a good one: T-Rex, directed by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari. T-Rex is a documentary about boxing prodigy Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, who won a gold medal at the Olympics at age 17. It’s a great sports documentary, but also an intimate portrait of a young woman who grew up in a tough environment and found a way to thrive.
When someone overcomes the odds to be successful, it’s easy to say, “you see, it can be done,” as if that erases the many struggles and perhaps also the lucky breaks that allow one person to be successful while another is not. To its credit, T-Rex never glosses over how tough it was growing up poor in Flint, Michigan, and, in fact, how tough it remains today for those who haven’t become world-class athletes.
In the case of Shields, her big break was taking up boxing in a gym run by Jason Crutchfield, who spotted her talent and became not only her coach but a sort of surrogate parent. She eventually moved into his home, and he became the person who counseled her to stay focused on her boxing and on completing high school (she is the first member of her family to graduate). There’s a scene when he goes over her report card, questioning a low grade and the number of tardies, that will ring true with parents and children the world over. Sometimes a kid needs someone checking up on them and holding them responsible, and if that person is not a parent, it’s crucial that someone else step up and play that role.
Boxing is a tough sport, but it seems that is the easy part of life for Shields, who must contend with a family that has no conception of the kind of success that she has achieved. When Shields is interacting with her parents and step-parents, you frequently feel that she is the only adult in the room. In one telling scene, she invites her mother and stepmother to dinner as a trial run for taking them to London with her for the Olympics. They seem unwilling to make any effort to get along, and you feel relieved when she takes Crutchfield’s advice to leave them and their drama at home, so she can concentrate on her boxing.
Concentrate she did. After an early loss in a tournament in China (the first time she had boxed without Crutchfield, who could not afford to make the trip and be there to coach her), she unlocks the key to winning matches against taller, more experienced fighters—get inside and punish them with blows to the face, once so successfully that the referee gives her opponent a standing eight-count, which is a rarity in Olympic boxing.
T-Rex is notable for the access the directors had to Shields and her family, some of whom don’t seem to have a filter when it comes to appearing on camera. When you see things on screen that make you uncomfortable, however, it’s worth taking a minute to think about what it must have been like to live in a world where people speak and behave like that on a regular basis. This insight gives T-Rex an additional dimension—it’s a great sports film, but also offers a clear window into the lives of people who must find a way to live in circumstances that most members of the typical film festival audience would find unfathomable.
T-Rex centers on Shields’ preparations for the London Olympics and her return to Flint following her Olympic triumph. It’s no spoiler to say that a gold medal is not a guaranteed path to fame and fortune, especially if your sport is not gymnastics or something similarly telegenic, and both Shields and her coach are disappointed when no big endorsement opportunities are forthcoming. Representatives of the U.S. Olympic committee don’t seem to be particularly helpful at helping her cash in on her success or adjust to post-Olympics life, and the film ends on an inconclusive note—will Shields be able to use her success to build a better life, or fall into one of the many traps that Flint offers for poor black women?
Producer Sue Jaye Johnson participated in a talkback following the film, and I’m pleased to be able to offer an update—Shields is training at the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs and, barring a serious injury or other catastrophe, must be considered a favorite for another gold medal in Rio. It’s a tribute to the power of storytelling in T-Rex that I feel like I know this young woman and want her to succeed against all the obstacles that may still lie in her path. | Sarah Boslaugh