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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Southpaw (review)

Portrait of the Boxer as a Young Man

The rags-to-riches sports tale is practically a genre unto its own, in which even a true story gets painted with such a gloss that a kid from the wrong side of the tracks could be forgiven for imagining that all he needs to hightail it outta there is a great hoop shot, tackle, or pitch. That isn’t reality, though. Not many kids playing midnight basketball will make it to the NBA.

And then there are the kids who like their side of the tracks just fine. That’s the case with Francis Barrett, a young Irish Traveller who’s the subject of Southpaw, Liam McGrath’s friendly and unpretentious documentary portrait. Barrett not only represented Ireland in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics but, to some controversy, carried the Irish flag during the opening ceremonies. But he isn’t hoping to use his success as a boxer to escape roots among a marginalized, ostracized people — he wants to garner for them the respect they deserve.
Like most of the nomadic minority Travellers — who aren’t related to the Romany Gypsies but are similar in many ways to them — Barrett grew up and still lives in a temporary assemblage of trailers, with no electricity or running water. Families — including Barrett’s — are large, with a dozen or more children, and the kids marry young and quickly start their own families. But McGrath is careful to point out, both through the narration and his nonjudgmental depiction of the Travellers, that this is a lifestyle choice on their part — even in the face of terrible prejudice, Travellers live this way because they want to, and not for lack of any other options.

McGrath never seems to take a Settled (the Traveller term for non-Travellers) point of view of Barrett’s life, never focuses on what most people would consider the grimness of Traveller conditions. The stark, 30-foot-long metal freight container that serves as Barrett’s gym, for example, might have, in the hands of a filmmaker with a political agenda, have become symbolic of a way of life we Settled should be working to eliminate, for the Travellers’ own good. But McGrath shows us this — and everything else — from Barrett’s unassuming point of view, as a normal part of the world. When Barrett offers us a little tour of his gym, he’s proud of it.

Even when McGrath comments on the discrimination Travellers face, he does so obliquely, from Barrett’s viewpoint, as if this is just another fact of life, however unfortunate, that one has to deal with. The freight-container gym — which sits in the Traveller campsite of Hillside, in the city of Galway — is currently the home of Galway’s Olympic Boxing Club, which trains only Traveller children. When the club lost its original base, in an actual building, it couldn’t find a new one because of its student body — hardly surprising in a society where Travellers are literally spat on in the street. But McGrath barely acknowledges this fact, except as one more little dig that spurs Barrett on in his training to become the first Traveller to compete in the Olympics and earn a bit of glory for his people.

Barber Chick Gillen, a former championship boxer, runs the Olympic Boxing Club, so named for the games’ ethic of nondiscrimination. Gillen trained Barrett through what can only be called a meteoric rise for the teenage welterweight boxer, as he went from fighting junior bouts to the Olympic ring in 15 months, and McGrath’s sensitive take on Barrett and Gillen’s relationship is part of what makes Southpaw so rewarding. Both are inarticulate in their affection for each other, and even as their relationship becomes a bit strained, when Barrett moves to England after the ’96 Olympics and starts working with another trainer, McGrath doesn’t linger with their awkwardness and instead simply shows us, unvarnished and without commentary, their stoicness.

The Irish can be “as brutally racist as any people on Earth” when it comes to the Travellers, sports journalist Tom Humphries says here, and Barrett disconcerted a good many people when, after his triumphant return from Atlanta, he didn’t take the opportunity to say publicly that he was looking for a path away from his Traveller roots. Barrett admits, through his deeds here as well as his reticent words, that he doesn’t want to be like everyone else. Southpaw is a wonderful tribute to this unlikely role model.

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

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