Welcome back to another edition of Fight Nerd Cinema! This time, we take a look at a documentary from 1999 called “Southpaw”, with no relation to the upcoming film starring Eminem of the same name. Since this is a documentary and not a three-act structured movie, I will bypass the typical format of reviews as well as a rating system, and just stick to the facts and content.
Directed by Liam McGrath, “Southpaw” documents three years in the life of an amateur boxer in Ireland named Francis Barrett from 1995 to 1998. Francis is part of the Travellers of Hillside, a trailer-park in the town of Galway. Think the nomadic “Pikey’s” from “Snatch”, and there you have it. Francis trains in a trailer with a make-shift sandbag hanging from the ceiling and a wooden board to jump rope on when we first meet him, mostly training outside the caravans with his three brothers.
His trainer is Chick Gillen AKA Chick the Barber, a kindly old man with an Irish accent as thick as a snow tire. Chick runs “The Olympic boxing club”, which some in the community felt was for “tinkers and knackers”, an impolite Irish term for the Travellers. Francis is a scrappy boxer and after seeing Michael Carruth win the welterweight gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, decides he wants to do that next, and this is where the story begins.
Hit the jump for the full review!
Just to give you a bit more of the background on the story, Francis earned his spot in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, and was chosen to hold the flag during the opening ceremonies. While being met with accolades from the American boxing fans, Irish press still lamented the fact that there country was being represented by a Traveller. The heart of this documentary is about Francis rising above the reputation that his people have in Ireland.
As Francis comes up in the world, he never leaves behind Hillside, specifically in the form of Chick. Even though Chick does not go with him to the Olympics in Atlanta, he gets a call from Francis immediately after his bouts. Chick is the father-figure in this film, since we never really hear from Francis’ real-life dad. He is quick with a word of wisdom and encouragement, but still calm and at times cold, never one to show much emotion.
Without going too much deeper into details, this story is not a documentary about boxing in Ireland, but the tale of a person fighting for respect as well as personal growth. Francis is soft-spoken and earnest, vulnerable for the cameras in spite of his tough exterior. The same can be said for Chick, which is why those two get along so well.
This was director Liam McGrath’s first full-length documentary, clocking at around 80 minutes total, and was his follow-up to 1993’s documentary short “Boys for Rent”, about the gay life and male prostitution in Ireland. McGrath has a hard nose for truth and does not shine away from exposing a side of the nation that is typically hid under a rock. He succeeds in making an intimate look at a tight-knit society that is treated as undesirable vagabonds, and humanizes them to give them the respect every human being deserves.
It’s a no-frills documentary, more along the lines of a journalistic piece. No fancy shots, just traditional storytelling and filmmaking techniques. McGrath did not become his own star through his cinematography, but let the cast of characters speak for themselves.
Coming into this documentary, I was not sure what to expect from this, and was surprised at how connected I felt to the characters by the end. Beyond respect, this documentary is about personal growth and change. For Chick, it is watching his second son come up in the world without him, and hoping he lives the right way.
This is a modest documentary for a modest group of people that starts as one thing and evolves into another. I really enjoyed this piece, although if you are not a fan of thick accents from the UK and do not enjoy reading sub-titles, you might have some problems adjusting in the beginning. By the end of it, you will be speaking with an accent of your own and boxing along with Francis.
DUring the film, boxing trainer Nicholas Cruz says to Francis, “Be the same person at the end of the road.” This is the message for the film, which reminds everyone that no matter how successful or big you become, remember how you got there and who you were when you started your journey. I highly recommend this movie for everyone, and lucky for you, you can watch it streaming instantly on Netflix. You can also grab a copy of “Southpaw” on DVD from Amazon for very cheap, so support a good indy film that went under the radar when it was released over a decade ago!