Film Review: T-Rex

In this rousing documentary about women’s Olympic boxing pioneer Claressa Shields’ fight for the gold medal, the specter of poverty enhances rather than distracts from the central narrative.
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The best, most cliché-free films about sports—few and far between as they are—know that there isn’t just one challenge facing the athlete. Whatever the sport or the story in question, it’s never just about winning. The most real and impactful drama always comes from everything else in the athlete’s life that is contributing to or fighting against their success. A win is never just a win.

With ­T-Rex, directors Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari ably manage to include themselves in the ranks of filmmakers who understand this basic truth. The subject of their smartly made and expressively shot documentary is Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, a 17-year-old boxing phenomenon from Flint, Michigan. Outgoing but tough and pragmatic, Shields is blunt about how she got started at the gym she’s been boxing at since age eleven: “I was just down here, beating guys... It was something I liked to do.”

Her coach, Jason Crutchfield, is a onetime boxer himself with a warm but authoritative manner. Crutchfield functions as essentially a second father to Shields, whose family is riddled with substance abuse, prison time and absenteeism. The filmmakers sketch out the strikes that Shields has against her in swift strokes: a revealingly candid interview with her younger sister lays out the chaos in her home; a shot of the Flint water tower that can’t help but evoke the city’s recent water crisis.

But, like their no-nonsense subject, they quickly get to the business at hand: what Shields has to do in order to become the first woman to win a gold medal in the upcoming 2012 London Olympics. This first involves a trip to China for a qualification fight. In addition to the culture shock of traveling around the world as a teenager, Shields has to deal with not having Crutchfield in her corner; USA Boxing rules dictate that she is coached by their own people. While losing her most steady supporter at that moment might have thrown many teenagers for a loop, Shields seems to take it all in stride. 

Back in Flint, tensions mount before the Olympics themselves. Not only will Crutchfield again not be in her corner, but family problems pile up, threatening to distract her from what is potentially the defining moment of her young life. Crutchfield also throws Shields a curveball with his demand that she not date her sparring partner, Rell, who she’s known since childhood and who comes across as one of the few people in her life with not much in the way of an agenda.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers thread in reminders of the fairly desperate circumstances that Shields’ family is living in. Paired with that poverty is the increasingly explicit, if not directly stated, expectation from certain people that not only does Shields need to win a gold medal in London, she must bring home the endorsement money that will help take care of her family. Her younger sister Briana states plainly her desire that Shields do well and get all of them “out of this hellhole.” On more than one occasion in the film, viewers can almost see somebody besides Shields adding up imaginary dollars in their heads and wondering how much they’ll get.

With that clearly unfair demand hanging over Shields’ head, the resulting matches in London, with Crutchfield shouting advice from the stands, take on a pulsatingly dramatic atmosphere. Anybody who follows the Olympics or boxing at all will already know the outcome. A victory might seem to be everything for Shields. But by the time it comes to that final match, with her pounding away with a fiery ferocity that proves her nickname, the filmmakers have laid the groundwork to show that for this determined black teenager from modern-day Flint, the fight won’t stop once the bell has rung.

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