Wrestle: America Pinned Down
Suzannah Herbert’s Wrestle opens on a shot of students carrying each other up a hill overlooking the floodlights of a baseball field. Flashes of lightning burst through the cloud-cover and thunder roars in the distance. It’s all chaos and yells as the boys drag themselves as far as they can go until their bodies give out. They fall covered in sweat collapsing on the grass. ‘Breathe, breathe, breathe,’ a disembodied voice yells, and you can’t help but think of Eric Garner’s last words: ‘I can’t breathe,’ he said as the police wrestled him down. Squint at the screen and for a second this footage looks like a war film, it could be Terrance Malick’s Thin Red Line. Instead, we cut to a shot of an American city at night, we’re in Huntsville, Alabama.
Alabama has been in the news a lot lately as its predominantly white, male, and decrepit legislature passed one of the most despicable anti-abortion laws in the country. The events depicted here may center around a boys high school wrestling team, but they don’t exist separate from these types of political realities. In fact, Herbert keenly knows that the greatest opponent these youth face are not their peers on the mat, but the structural institutions that fail them by design. ‘When you get that scholarship, when you get that job, and you provide for your kids, you will understand why we fought.‘ When their coach gives them a motivational speech, he’s not talking about winning or glory, he’s talking about survival.
The focus of the film is the wrestling team of J.O Johnson High School, one of Alabama’s ‘failing’ schools. We are introduced to the students: Jailen, Jaquan, Teague, and Jamario and their coach Chris Scribner. Coach Scrib, as the kids call him, is a transplant from New York who in snippets mentions having overcome struggles of his own. He talks about drinking, drugs, and dropping out of school, though he acknowledges that his whiteness has afforded him privileges that his mostly Black students don’t receive. Herbert does well to not lionize Coach Scrib too much, as for all his well-meaning earnestness and passion, he’s not above accusing Jaquan of stealing his sunglasses, or wrestling down Jamario for being disrespectful, and we get to watch these awkward moments play out in full. In fact, as the film goes on, an intriguing throughline is the way in which for all of his privilege he has been failed as well.
But while Coach Scrib hovers around trying to push the boys in any way he can, through clunky Obama references or showing up at their homes, it’s really the youth that are the focus. Their individual struggles are disparate but are emblematic of life in American poverty. Their parents and caretakers are a more realistic depiction of the average American working class than the white-washed profiles of regretful Trump voters that litter the pages of the New York Times. Racial profiling and police harassment, untreated emotional traumas and medical bills, an underfunded school system, these issues crop up in one way or another as just some of the hurdles that the boys need to clear before even making it to practice.
In taking such a complete and honest approach to these kids lives, Herbert is able to paint a searing profile of America. In one remarkably unsettling sequence, we watch as Jailen delivers a speech before the board of a local military equipment contractor thanking them for their donation to the school. Images of weapons of war cover the walls as Jailen talks about finding the inspiration to pursue a higher education. Unspoken in the moment but clear to Herbert is that the majority of America’s military who are sent overseas to fight and die in endless wars are recruited from impoverished communities just like this one. The camera lingers on the placid smiles of the office workers who don’t quite grasp their role in America’s war-machine, they’re just happy to be helping out.
Another pointed moment comes later in the film as the police find a ‘trace amount of weed’ in Jaquan’s car, meaning it smells like it but they can’t find it. They arrest him and consequently deprive his family of food stamps. It’s hard not to reflect on recent social media posts of Billy Ray Cyrus’s wife gleefully posing with pounds of weed, or the breathless reporting in Forbes that legal weed sales last year hit $10B, and then think back to families like this still having food stripped from them and their children thrown into jail for possessing ‘trace amounts’. Even with more and more states passing legalization, millions still remain jailed for minor charges like this.
Wrestle’s greatest strength is the way in which it unravels these themes quietly and even when the State Championships take center stage it becomes clear that there is a larger story at work. The scenes of the actual wrestling are as tense and engaging as if the entire film had simply focused on the competition, and yet they are also imbued with a raw emotional power that lurks beneath. For a sports film, what is most remarkable is the sadness that lives on even in the moments of victory. Herbert never lets us forget the underlying realities to which these kids must return, and no matter how much we may want to revel in the escapism of competition, the fall back down to earth is swift and brutal.
Where to stream Wrestle: Kanopy
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