In the astounding new documentary T-Rex, we meet 17-year-old boxer Claressa Shields as she trains for the first-ever women’s boxing team in the 2012 Olympics. Directors Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari followed their subject during the pivotal first months of Shields’ career in her hometown of Flint, Michigan and beyond. We see her train for long hours in the gym while juggling homework, teenage romance, a challenging trainer and her loving but unstable family, all of them desperate to see her succeed.
I had the chance to talk briefly on the phone to directors Cooper and Canepari about their film, which opens today (June 3) with a weeklong run at the Grand Illusion cinema.
“It’s an incredible movie,” I gushed. I mentioned Hoop Dreams, the groundbreaking 1994 documentary about two exceptional high school-age basketball players from Chicago’s inner city and everything they go through in pursuit of an impossible dream. Hoop Dreams and T-Rex are both sports documentaries with a subject so powerful that it manages to transcend the genre to become something much more intimate and universal. “I think the world is underreacting to your movie,” I told Cooper, based on nothing, really, because what do I know about how the world will react to a film that hasn’t yet been released to a wide audience? Cooper said, “I tend to agree.”
Cooper and Canepari found the subject of T-Rex while pursuing a larger project about teenage female athletes in male-dominated sports. Shields’ story immediately stood out from the others, and so the two of them dedicated the next three years to following her career. It’s easy to see what drew the filmmakers to Shields. In the gym, at school and with her family, Shields proves herself to be a woman with tremendous talent, grit, charisma and determination. “She’s beautiful and raw,” Canepari told me (as if I wasn’t already crushing).
We learn that she walked into her neighborhood gym as a scrawny kid, wanting to be a fighter. That’s where she met Jason Crutchfield, a former boxer himself who would go on to become both her trainer and a kind of surrogate father to her over the next six years. Crutchfield didn’t believe in women boxers, but Shields’ wasn’t swayed by public opinion. Even back then, with no cultural consensus on her side, Claressa believed that she could fight, compete and win, and holy shit if that in itself is not an inspiring, revolutionary act.
We meet, as well, her real father, who was incarcerated for most of her childhood, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, who doesn’t get along with her younger, precocious sister. (Claressa’s sister Breanna’s scenes are so good, I’d have watched a whole other movie starring her.)
The film doesn’t flinch from the reality of Shields’ family: they’re black and poor and living in a city long since abandoned by industry. It’s easy to see how an Olympian hopeful coming out of a place like Flint would mean so much to the city and its people. In one prescient scene, we see Shields help her mother pay an outstanding water bill; if you’ve been following the Flint Water Crisis of late, it’s enough to break your heart and make your blood boil all at once.
I grew up in Waterford, a medium-sized township about 30 minutes north of Flint. I’ve been visiting Flint my entire life, as recently as this past January, and I can assure you, the struggle is real. The first shot of Shields’ neighborhood features a street corner with a boarded-up business overgrown with graffiti. Even before the title on screen told me where we were, I knew. Every shot of Flint is unmistakably Michigan, and even in so much poverty and degradation, the film manages to harness the place’s weird beauty. In between the human moments, the camera makes a point of lingering on the surrounding environment. Beyond the subject matter, T-Rex is a terrific film to look at.
It pains me to avoid talking about T-Rex’s last half, because there’s so much fertile material there. But even though Claressa Shields’ story is in the public record, Canepari told me, “She’s nowhere near a household name yet.” If you don’t know what happens to Claressa in her pursuit of an Olympic medal, I want you to find out in the course of the film, the same way that I did.
Boxing movies are among my favorite kinds of movies, because the story brings with it an instantly recognizable metaphor. In boxing, you fight an opponent for a brief, explosive moment, and yet most of the blood, sweat and tears happen over years of training. It’s a sport that you ultimately play against yourself, and yet every great fighter has equally great people in their corner. As Cooper told me, “It’s an archetypal story,” and yet this one has a third act that falls off from the typical happy ending to become something much deeper and nuanced than anyone could have guessed.
T-Rex opens Friday, June 3 at Grand Illusion Cinema (1403 NE 50th St) in Seattle’s University District and plays through Thursday, June 9. The film’s also available to rent or own on vimeo.