"It's a great fight, it's non-stop punching," says one boxer. "The punches aren't healthy, but you take what is necessary," says another. The sweet science, and leaving it all on the mat. Brutal barbarism, or unpaid women pounding each other in the head for wholly personal reasons? When you're watching The Life Of Million Dollar Babies, ultimately the blood just rushes to your head like it always does.
Documentarian Leyla Liedecker was a sparring partner for Hillary Swank during the making of Million Dollar Baby. With the subject close to her heart, and a connection to the movie, she wisely apes the title for her brief but exhilarating look at eight women vying for the Golden Gloves title in 2005. Women had been participating in amateur boxing for years, but it wasn't until 1993 when a boxer named Dee Hamaguchi took pains to enter the Golden Gloves competition. The storied contest was conceived in Chicago in 1923, and has fostered amateur competitors all the way to the Olympics ever since. The only problem is that boxing is the only Olympic sport that's still exclusive to men. Hamaguchi decided to correct this, enlisting the aid of the ACLU, and finally in 1995, women were able to compete in the Golden Gloves.
We're still waiting on the Olympics.
Nonetheless dozens (hundreds? thousands? more?) women still itch to compete, and Leidecker's documentary takes a quick look inside their world through a combination of interviews, ever-present behind-the-scenes footage from the gym, backstage at the Golden Gloves, and elsewhere. But Leidecker knows that no matter how interesting the stories of these women are, in the end the larger-than-life drama is in the ring, so she doesn't short us on footage of the bouts. Let me tell you, these women can fight. As mentioned above, the fights are non-stop punching. They are shorter bouts than men's boxing, and the women wear helmets, but you'll see nary a woozy, overlong clutch in the center of the ring, just lots of pop! pop! pop! These fights are a powerful engine that makes an already inspirational-by-default story quite compelling - it's hard not to get carried away by a fight.
The neat thing about boxing (especially women's boxing) and this 60-minute documentary is the sense of friendship, camaraderie and shared purpose these athletes have. While there are plenty of those fronting a bit of bravado, before and after the bouts it's all support and commiseration, shared tales of how and why they box, and smiles and hugs after one finishes off the other. Not that there aren't surprised winners and close calls. There's also that subtext - strongly presented - that women shouldn't fight, that their contests are freak-shows, and that the mere fact that they are women fighting makes the whole thing somehow a turn on. These are notions that one featured boxer, Geneve, makes clear in her art show. Not only is she a boxer, she's a teacher and a sculptor. That's the best thing about The Life Of Million Dollar Babies, showing how for these women, fighting is more than just 'a way out of the ghetto,' (as boxing is so often portrayed) it's one aspect of their lives that they look at very carefully. Maybe one day, if women's boxing ever makes it to the Olympics, it will be something even more rich.