T-Rex of the title of Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper’s documentary is the pugilistic nickname for Flint, Michigan’s Claressa Shields, who at the London Olympics, at the mere age of 17, became the first American woman to win Gold in women’s boxing, which made its debut at those same games. It might seem like a spoiler to reveal in the opening paragraph that she wins Gold since, hey, isn’t that what this documentary is all about? “Her Fight For Gold”? But it’s not really a spoiler, not even if you somehow avoided all sports press clippings in that last 4 years. And it’s not that the movie establishes straight up front that she wins, because it doesn’t. But the doc does place the match directly in the middle, building toward it and then pivoting off of it, because “T-Rex” seeks not simply to capture a Gold Medal winning moment. It seeks to capture how the lives of these athletes that consume us for a fortnight go on before the Games and go on after the Games. Claressa is 19. She’s a young woman. She’s Gold Medalist but damn she’s got a lot of life left.
It would have been so easy for this documentary to devolve into a feature length NBC Olympics puff piece. I don’t disagree with those pieces, but I disagree with their presentation, the way in which they transform every single athlete’s life and subsequent event into a fairytale. Claressa Shields winning Gold was not a fairytale. She was a skilled boxer, the best in the world, and she proved it. And though she had to overcome obstacles in life to get there, “T-Rex” never sentimentalizes this journey, balancing out lyrical shots of falling snow and shadow boxing with frames of the harsher side of life. At one point, they Canepari and Cooper fill the frame with the Flint, Michigan water tower and just let it sit there for a few seconds, letting it sink in that we know what’s coming even if they don’t, as if there is always something else to contend with where Claressa comes from.
Her parents are divorced, and while we don’t spend much time with them, we spend enough to get the gist, like a wrenching scene when Claressa’s sister stands on the sidewalk outside their house and winds up in an ominous verbal altercation with her mother’s current boyfriend. It’s short-lived, but it feels ominous. You know this is the norm.
Claressa, meanwhile, winds up living with her coach, Jason Crutchfield, a former boxer. He had to retire and take a regular job, and he admits on camera to every coach’s yearning to tutor a champion, yet he never ever comes across as someone molding his charge in his image. He comes across as matter-of-fact in coaching as he does in parenting, equally making demands that Claressa might not like, but that he genuinely feels are best for her. This includes a boyfriend, who doubles as her sparring partner, who Jason doesn’t want her to see because he feels it affects the push & pull of his gym. That this never quite gets resolved feels true to the spirit of the film, where a life’s journey winds and weaves, and nothing is ever quite settled in stone.
When Claressa becomes an Olympian, she is forced to leave Jason behind, figuratively, because the coaches are obligated to be official appointees by Team USA. Still, he’s there, in the stands, and afterwards, giving her, the movie makes it seem, as many pointers, if not more, and if not more wise, than those of her “official” coaches. Not that Claressa or “T-Rex” mine too much drama out of this. The drama is in the ring, where the soundtrack, restrained but sharp, helps to wring real theater even when you know the result, allowing you disappear into the fight, as if it’s happening in real time.
The climactic match, however, they handle a little differently, content in the advanced knowledge of her victory, rendering it as coronation rather than will she or won’t she? And when she does, it is the very genuine joy practically emanating from her visage, and the way she ecstatically bounces on the podium, that gets to you. Oh dear me, it’s hard not to believe in the Olympic Movement in those moments.
What follows afterwards isn’t a fall so much as the way in which the cloud of normalcy just sort of re-settles over Claressa. There is an indelible shot of her sitting on the couch, the Gold Medal in her lap, which evokes the sensation of “Well, what do I do with this thing now?” She yearns for endorsements, but they are not forthcoming. In one scene she and Jason meet with members of USA Boxing and they tell her to stop telling the press she wants to beat people up. She agrees, but reluctantly, and the look on her face, her eyes tilted toward the floor, isn’t a pout but a kind of WTF? Even so, important milestones beckon, like prom and graduation. And in these moments a paradox emerges.
In the hard won if healthy state of mind she displays, it is hard not to feel that true fame and fortune not finding her has allowed for that attitude. At the same time, when you see her continuing struggles, when you see her taking her mom to pay a bill at a collection agency, you cannot help but want fame and fortune for her more than anything.