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Film Review A fighter’s unlikely journey to the Olympics

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

When a promising athlete emerges from a background of racial discrimination and hostility to excel at his chosen sport, bigoted fans are forced to rethink deep-rooted societal prejudices regarding class and skin color. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s performance on the diamond won grudging admiration from a lot of people who thought that blacks should enter by a different door and sit on a different bench. And a motormouth Kentuckyian named Cassius Clay did the same in boxing with his wit, charm and superlative skills in the ring.

Years after Clay became Ali and passed from champion to legend, an Irish welterweight achieved a small victory for fair play over class prejudice by becoming the first athlete from Ireland’s 60,000-strong Traveler minority to represent his country at the Olympics.

Francis Barrett, an earnest 19-year-old from Galway, is the subject of Liam McGrath’s film "Southpaw," a documentary that follows his battles over a two-year period, inside and outside the ring, from a halting site with no electricity and running water in Ireland to the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta.

Barrett and his brothers joined the appropriately named Olympic Boxing Club in Galway in 1989, under the tutelage of former Connacht champion Chick Gillen, known as Chick the Barber. Chick ran the club with an open-door policy that allowed any aspiring pugilist to join regardless of background. Chick welcomed the Travelers, who were denied membership elsewhere, which soon led to his ostracizing and the loss of his lease on the club premises.

Undeterred, Chick trained his fighters at his house, in his yard, and by the side of the road under streetlamps. His most determined pupils, the Barrett brothers, saved for three years to buy a metal container that they adapted for use as a gym at their halting site. Francie soon proved to be the best of them, and went on to become Irish junior champion, setting in motion the events that led to his remarkable Olympic journey.

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Barrett’s progress in the lower reaches of amateur boxing makes for a feel-good story of modest proportions compared to the epic struggles for racial equality in the U.S., but prejudice seen at smaller scale is no less ugly. A dedicated slugger who had the discipline to win four Irish junior titles on the way to earning a place on the Olympic team, Francis did so in the face of public objections from a Cork councilor who claimed that Francis had no business representing Ireland because he had never worked a day in his life. Others demanded that the Travelers should be tagged like cattle to make it easier to keep an eye on them.

But the sight of an ecstatic Barrett proudly carrying the Irish flag into the Olympic Stadium in front of the world’s dignitaries and hundreds of millions of TV viewers was irresistible for more reasonable Irish people, and pride in his achievement extended far beyond the Traveler community. Francie beat the Brazilian boxer Ferreria in his first bout, but lost in the next one to Fathi Missaqui, ending the dream and returning to Ireland without a medal.

The trouble with documentaries, particularly those shot in the here-and-now with sports as their subject, is that reality won’t behave itself and form a cohesive dramatic narrative the way fiction does. (The unique exception to this in Irish sport would be "A Year Til Sunday," the Gaelic football documentary that tracks Galway’s route from underdog status to All-Ireland victory in Croke Park, shot by reserve goalie Pat Comer.)

"Southpaw" makes for engaging viewing, and has likable lead figures in the form of Francis and his beloved trainer Chick, a paradigm of old-fashioned decency virtually extinct in Ireland nowadays. Worthy insights on the young boxer are supplied by Tom Humphries, a lucid and passionate chronicler of sports for the Irish Times, and Nicholas Cruz, Cuban boxing eminence and mentor to Irish fighters Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough as well as Francis Barrett.

But McGrath’s camera focuses on Barrett’s life when he’s already well on his way to the Olympics, and the fights that took him there are filled in as background. The Atlanta Games occur about halfway through the film, and the fairy tale buildup is deflated by the fact that he didn’t win a medal. The film returns for the second half with Francis slugging his way through the shabby gyms of London and Dublin to try and win Irish and British ABA championship titles in the same year, and leaves things dangling with the prospect of the Sydney 2000 Olympics still two years away, and Francis’s full potential still unrealized.

The film feels like its makers came too late to the story and left too soon. Given the way that the shoestring funding of film works in Ireland, this is undoubtedly due to financial constraints rather than any misjudgment by the producers, but if Francis does the business in Sydney this summer, McGrath and company would do well to revisit, re-edit and retell his story with the real punchline in place.

Southpaw opens on April 7, in New York and nationwide, at selected Loews Theaters.

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