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SXSW: Qualified

“All I want to do is race cars.”

Janet Guthrie

Adventurous and determined, Janet Guthrie is a trailblazer in the auto racing world. As the first woman to race the Indy 500, she faced an uphill battle to break the gender barrier in the late 1970s. Her career was plagued with setbacks; from mechanical failures, to lack of sponsorship that kept her out of races, to injuries and the biggest of all was the engrained belief that women could not physically be race car drivers.

Guthrie is a fearless woman. At a very young age, she fell in love with flying and didn’t hesitate to jump out of a plane for her first skydive. But realizing that female pilots were banned from both the airline industry and the military, she decided to become an aeronautical engineer instead. This led to her discovery of sports cars, a fascination with their design and her infatuation with the sport. Developing her skills as a driver, Guthrie loved speed and racing took over her life. But was auto racing ready for a woman driver?

“What is this nonsense that women can’t do it?”

Janet Guthrie on women race car drivers

Director Jenna Ricker’s Qualified follows the career of Janet Guthrie and all its ups and downs. And there were a lot of downs. The documentary consists of mostly archival footage of Guthrie’s races and television interviews. Guthrie herself and the various drivers and mechanics speak at length about her qualifying attempts, her races and all the struggles she endured in her career. I found Guthrie’s story both frustrating and awe-inspiring. I was angry at society for holding her back whether it was a sponsor not wanting to risk being associated with a woman driver or other people in the industry believing the sport was too dangerous for women. One pivotal moment show the dilemma of whether to call out “gentleman start your engines” when both Guthrie and the mechanic starting her engine were women.

As a woman who has experienced many career setbacks, I was really motivated by Guthrie’s tenacity. She explored every option, fought for every qualifier and race and only gave up when no options were left for her. If it hadn’t been for her tenacity, she might not have opened the doors necessary to pursue her dream. That’s a powerful message for any woman of any age.

Qualified takes its viewers on an emotional journey. I’m so grateful for Ricker’s film and the opportunity to learn about Guthrie’s story. I’ll have to admit, I choked up a few times. I can’t emphasize how important it is for a woman to have a strong female role model, even if she’s in a completely different field from your own. It can be life changing.

Qualified had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.

In Search of Greatness

“The people who achieve real greatness don’t fit the formula at all. They break the mold.” 

Sir Ken Robinson

Playing it safe is stifling. So is being too structured and rigid in your training. For those athletes who’ve climbed to the top of their sport, the key to success has come from several factors that they could and could not control. 

Gabe Polsky’s documentary In Search of Greatness analyzes the psychology behind sports greatest athletes. In-depth interviews with Wayne Gretzky, Pele and Jerry Rice as well as an examination of other champions from a variety of sports, reveals what it takes to make it. You might be surprised what you learn.

Some of the fascinating revelations in this documentary come from the advancements in technology and training that claim to offer a way to weed out the weak have the potential to miss the best of the best. 

What makes an athlete a champion? These are individuals who have passion, vision and talent. Journalist David Epstein says they require both rage and the ability to learn quickly. They cannot have one without the other. These athletes are perfectionists who obsess over small details and want to fine tune their craft to a greater extent where others would have given up or were satisfied with less. They use doubt as motivation, are highly competitive and benefit from the guidance of mentors but also follow their own path.

Interview subjects

  • Wayne Gretzky – hockey
  • Pele – soccer
  • Jerry Rice – football
  • David Epstein – journalist
  • Sir Ken Robinson – education and creativity expert

Other athletes discussed at length

  • Venus and Serena Williams – tennis
  • John McEnroe – tennis
  • Muhammad Ali – boxing 
  • Tony Hawk – skateboarding
  • Michael Jordan – basketball
  • Tom Brady – football
  • Rocky Marciano – Boxing
Wayne Gretzky
Pele
Jerry Rice

“Our society encourages formulaic approaches to chasing dreams. These icons’ trajectories prove that mastery cannot be manufactured.”

Gabe Polsky

Every helicopter parent out there who seeks greatness for their sports kid and puts them in a rigid program that leaves them overtrained and hating life needs to watch this film. I trained at an athletic center for over 3 years and I would watch these parents yell at their kids for making simple mistakes. If their kid was truly passionate about the sport and a professional career was a possibility, they were doing everything to make it not happen. If they watch In Search of Greatness, they’d learn a thing or two about their harmful behavior.

In Search of Greatness is a fascinating documentary with a ground-breaking message. This is a necessary viewing for anyone interested in sports psychology. Even if you’re not a sports person, the message about passion and the key to success is inspiring for anyone pursuing a career. 

My only complaint about the film is that the subjects in the film are overwhelmingly male, with Serena Williams as a notable exception. I’d love to see a follow-up documentary with a focus on female athletes.

In Search of Greatness will be available on iTunes in April. Visit the official website for more information on how you can host a screening.

Benched

“This is about the playing. Not the winning or losing. It’s about having fun.”

Michael (Garret Dillahunt) is eager to work as assistant coach for his son’s little league baseball team. But he gets more than he bargained for with head coach Don (John C. McGinley). These two are as different as could be. Michael was a curling champ in his youth and fondly remembers the spirit of the game and has long forgotten any wins. Don, on the other hand, remembers every game and holds personal grudges when circumstances led to a catastrophic loss. Their coaching styles clash, confusing the kids who don’t know who to listen to. Should they buy into Michael’s brand of everyone-is-a-winner mentality? Or should they listen to coach Don who believes every game is a fight for glory? As the season progresses we learn more about the complicated histories of these two coaches. Michael is a recent widower starting fresh in a new town. Don is having marital issues causing him to put more of his focus on the game. Will the two find a way to work together to help the team make it to the championships?

 

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Benched is the feature film directorial debut for Robert Deaton and George Flanigen. Unlike other movies about elementary school sports, the focus here is not on the kids but on the adults. I thought this was a curious choice for the filmmakers. Besides some scenes singling out a couple of the kids in particular and a thorough introduction to each team member, we really don’t know much about them as characters. They’re not who were rooting on. Instead it’s the two coaches, both of whom are navigating through a transitional period in their lives.

Adding just a touch of estrogen to the film is Jlynn Johnson who plays Carolyn, a love interest for both Michael and Don. I wish her character was more complex but there wasn’t much room in the film for her part to bloom and blossom.

The clash between Michael and Don is a sort of metaphor for a divided America. Michael is the stereotypical lazy liberal, accepting of many, encouraging of any effort and sees all the kids as equals in their field. Don is the hard-nosed conservative with a winners-versus-losers mentality who is very vocal about the team’s hierarchy. They learn from each other and ultimately have to compromise. Perhaps the message here is a political one rather than one of personal motivation.

If you’re looking for a positive sports movies featuring kids overcoming obstacles, then look elsewhere. Benched is a much different movie. It’s a complex study of disparate individuals, in this case, two adults. The film starts off a bit cheesy and awkward but once it picks up I found it quite engrossing. The baseball scenes were fun to watch and I found myself rooting on the team. If you like sports movies and want to try something a bit different, give Benched a shot.

 

 

Benched is screening in select theaters today and also available on VOD.

Race

This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

Race

Station: Sports Biopic
Time Travel Destination: 1933-1936 Ohio and Berlin, Germany
Conductor: Stephen Hopkins

“There ain’t no black and white. Just fast and slow.”

One man can change the course of history. In 1936, that man was Jesse Owens.

Director Stephen Hopkins’ biopic Race (2016) explores the pivotal years when Owens begins his track and field career at Ohio State University in 1934 to when he won an four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. The journey in between is a fascinating story of a talented young man given the opportunity to practice his talent while also facing the hardships of growing up black during the Great Depression. He faces prejudice at every turn. It’s through the support and tough love he receives from his coach that Owens is given a platform to shine.

Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens. We watch Owens progress from an unskilled runner with a natural talent for speed to a highly-trained master of short sprints and the long jump. Owens carries a big weight on his back. He has a big family to support as well as his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their daughter Gloria. He’s the first in his family to go to college. And not only that, he represents all his fellow African-American men and women through his glory as an athlete but to also fight against prejudice and racism not only in his country but also in Nazi Germany. This is no small feat. Owens has a monumental task in front of him and we are there to root him on.

“A man has to present an image to the world.”

The title of this movie Race has a double meaning. It represents Jesse Owens’ track and field career and also being African-American in a time of systemic racism. The film explores both aspects of Owens life and how running helped him transcend prejudice. Not only would Owens break records in his sport but he also paved the way for African-American athletes to come.

I was quite impressed with Race (2016). Star Stephan James did well by Owens in honoring his legacy and portraying a young talented man who had this overwhelming burden to bear. The portrayal is complex and James plays Owens in a highly sympathetic manner. I very much enjoyed the relationship between Owens and his coach Snyder, played by Jason Sudeikis. I’ve only seen Sudeikis in comedic roles so it was great to see him in a drama playing a mentor. Little is known about the actual historic figure so what Sudeikis brings to the table is what we all hope their relationship would have been. James and Sudeikis play off each other effectively on screen and I looked forward to each new scene with the two. I was also particularly taken with the real life Luz Long and Jesse Owens friendship as portrayed by David Kross and James. I immediately went to research this online and the portrayal in the film is very close to what happened in real life. Long was a German track and field athlete who helped Owens even though it went against Nazi ideology.

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race2016c

“God spared you for a reason.”

Jeremy Irons, one of my favorite actors who has frequently graced the screen in many a period piece, plays Avery Brundage, the US Olympic Committee chairman who negotiates with the Nazis. Barnaby Metschurat plays Joseph Goebbels as a cold, calculating Nazi who is annoyed by Germany’s need for having the United States at their Olympics. He draws the audience’s necessary anti-Nazi ire. I questioned the storyline about Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker played by brilliantly by Clarice van Houten. I wondered in the filmmakers were too lenient with her portrayal as a more sympathetic figure.

Visually this film does it’s best to represent the mid 1930s as it would have looked. It’s history CGI’d with a sepia filter. Much of what we see is layered so it feels more fantastical than real. But because the story is based on true events this really doesn’t take away from the movie’s message. The 1930s style costumes are magnificent and I was particularly taken by the colorful wardrobes worn by Shanice Banton and Chantel Riley. Clarice van Houten dons finger waves, cloche hats, blouses and equestrian pants.

Race

Tournage RACE

Race put me through the ringer emotionally. I went through the gamut of experiencing joy, anxiety and anger and I spent most of the final 30 minutes of the film streams of tears coming down my face. This is an amazing film because it’s an amazing story.

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Race (2016) is available to rent from DVD Netflix.

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