ON THE ROPES is the kind of powerful documentary that can open your eyes to a world close to you that you might otherwise ignore or make passing judgments about. It has the power to bring you into this world, make you appreciate it and then break your heart.Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen hone their video cameras on three high school age boxers and their trainer at the New Bed-Stuy Boxing Center in New York, who are all getting ready for the 1996 Golden Gloves championships.
The boxers are Noel Santiago of Puerto Rican descent who has turned away from drugs and petty crimes to box, Tyrene Manson a well adjusted young woman trying to make something of her life but who has been (wrongfully it seems) accused of possession of cocaine and George Walton a strong kid who is clearly on the road to a successful boxing career. Their trainer Harry is a former drug user who has spent time in prison and who lived on the street and has now turned his life around to help kids at the gym. He feels loyalty to the kids because he empathizes with their difficulties but he too feels a bit of betrayal — especially with George when they don't reciprocate.
For a compelling 90 minutes we follow the triumphs and failures of their young lives and the way in which Harry must deal with the transition of being a personal protege to George to being just another one of his trainers.
Similar to HOOP DREAMS, the documentary deals with the hopes and aspirations of teens who have been born in poverty-stricken areas for which it seems they have little chances or hopes of escape. They use boxing as a way to get out their aggressions, stay in shape and give them an opportunity to get out of the ghetto and make something of their lives.
Each of the true stories is simple but harrowing. Noel doesn't yet have the skills to be a great fighter so he struggles with losing fights and bad grades in school. Tyrene is very talented and in great shape and clearly the front runner for the Golden Gloves championships but she has to go to court and - at the hands of an indifferent legal system - find out if her immediate fate is prison or the ring.
George is about to turn professional and although he has all the talent and confidence to have a promising career he doesn't have enough experience to understand that being professional doesn't necessarily mean making lots of money. He is torn in loyalty between his trainer, Harry, and those whom he thinks only see him as a commodity to exploit for their own purpose.
The DVD extras add a lot to the documentary. Extras include a theatrical trailer and a very insightful running commentary by directors Burstein, Morgen and Theodore Shapiro who did the music. They explain, with a lot of insightful anecdotes, the motivations and background to the project.The theatrical version of the documentary ended on a precarious note showing that while life will go on for the kids, it may not go where they hoped it to go. But the DVD has a very poignant and fitting five-minute epilogue that gives us an update on each of the young boxers and gives the documentary a fitting extra dimension. -- Matt Langdon