SOME OF BROOKLYN'S toughest real estate lies in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Drugs and gangs exert a powerful pull amid blocks and blocks of housing projects. Poverty, unemployment, and violence are commonplace. It's a neighborhood that, one way or another, you fight your way out of. That's what the subjects of this new documentary are trying to do. Every day at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Club, trainer Harry Keitt and his protégés get in the ring and look toward the future.
ON THE ROPES
directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen
runs October 22-29 at Grand Illusion
There's Noel Santiago, a 17-year-old project kid born to a former crack-addict mother and a father he's met once. With some self-discipline, Noel might be able to parlay his boxing talent into a Golden Gloves win, then maybe finish the ninth grade.
There's Tyrene Manson, who lost her job in 1995, the same year she became the legal guardian of her two cousins when their mother died of AIDS. She lives with her crack-addicted uncle, who's also got AIDS. Later, the police arrest her during a drug bust at her uncle's house; her final court appearance is then scheduled for the very day of her Golden Gloves final. She wearily sums up her life after moving the family's meager possessions into a basement apartment: "I hope I've got the strength to get up in the morning and go to the gym—then come home to reality."
By contrast, George Walton had it easy: He grew up in a stable home with his mother and eight of his 15 siblings. His natural ability, nurtured by Harry's training, has earned him first place in both the Empire State Games and the Golden Gloves. Now the young Mike Tyson look-alike is ready to enter the highly competitive, none-too-ethical world of professional boxing.
THE FATHERLY HUB around which these spokes revolve, Harry has led a cinematically tragic life. Once a Golden Gloves finalist and a sparring partner of Mohammed Ali, he never made it as a pro boxer due to his spiraling drug addiction. After killing his cousin in a drug-fueled dispute, he served four years in Sing Sing and Attica. Released from prison, Harry lived on the street before returning to boxing for salvation.
Back at the gym where he trained as a teenager, Harry tries to balance his role as a teacher and confidante with his own ambition to make a mark—and earn some money—in the boxing world. His dilemma comes into heartrending focus when George signs with a no-nonsense manager determined to install a new trainer. As Harry counsels the young fighter to beware of "the snakes" who populate pro boxing, you can clearly see his yearning to be included in George's success. Yet it's also obvious that money isn't Harry's main motivation when he urges a truant Noel to return to the gym—and to school.
Though it chronicles real events, On the Ropes unfolds with all the drama—and occasionally, the manipulations—of a Hollywood feature. Directors Burstein and Morgen have both worked with Barbara Kopple, and like her Harlan County USA, Ropes doesn't feign objectivity. Personally vested in these four lives, the directors occasionally seem too eager to tie the ambiguities of life into a neat narrative bow. Still, it's clear that for the habitués of this ramshackle Bed-Stuy gym, boxing is both sanctuary and escape route. Accordingly, On the Ropes is less about boxing than about the battle to pursue a dream when the odds stack up against you. As Harry advises Noel, "The fight isn't with your opponent, it's with yourself."