Occasionally a film will surprise you by getting to a familiar place via an unusual route. Cradle of Champions, Bartle Bull’s new documentary about fighters competing in New York City’s legendary amateur boxing tournament the Golden Gloves, delivers the kind of excitement, the powerful story arc, and the unforgettable characters one expects from a first rate fiction film, but it does so in the distinctively restrained and thoughtful genre of cinéma vérité.
By deploying an unusually large team of very experienced camera and sound people led by industry legend Tom Hurwitz to shoot lots of footage of the months-long Golden Gloves, Bull and ace editor Michael Levine were able to tell the intricate, multi-layered story of how two young boxers, James Wilkins and Titus Williams, went all the way from the opening rounds to the finals of the tournament.
Backed by a pair of equally interesting trainers who serve as their corner men, the duo offer an initial set of contrasts—James is white, Titus is black, James is the passionate challenger, Titus is the seasoned near-professional—that gradually gives way to the feeling that they have more in common than not. Born into humble circumstances and trained in the boroughs of New York, the men both use boxing as a way to escape their class destinies and gain access to the parts of New York that people imagine when they think of the “big city.”
But that’s not all, because there’s another story, this time of a single fighter, and a single mom, Nisa Rodriguez. She’s a five time Golden Gloves champ in her weight class, and by the end of the film, the audience feels it knows her young daughter as well it knows Rodriguez. In true direct cinema fashion, there’s no narrator to warn the viewer when the story is about to switch from following the men to following the woman. In one particularly memorable sequence, the film cuts from a weigh in on the men’s side to a close up detail of feet on a scale. The toenails on these particular feet are painted a bright shade of red, and it takes a moment of wondering which of these two guys paints his toenails until you realize that we’ve crossed over into Nisa’s story.
Because the tournament begins in small auditoriums in the outer boroughs before it travels first to the swanky New York Athletic Club and then, for the finals, to the state-of-the-art Barclays Center, the movie describes a broad swathe of the New York landscape.
Although the final fight sequence delivers spectacular action footage, the film’s heart lies in the way it explores the fighter’s neighborhoods, families, and especially their mentors, the trainers Pat Russo and Joe Higgins. These guys are classic New York types straight from central casting. A policeman and a fireman, they have both been affected very deeply by the September 11th attacks and their aftermath, and both men keep their souls alive by going to the gym and acting as surrogate fathers to these fighters. They are articulate, opinionated, and most importantly, unfailingly genuine and interesting. These performances in particular made such a strong impression on the Santa Barbara Film Festival audience that in the question and answer period following the screening I saw, a distinguished actor asked the director how he managed to cast these parts so well.
Which brings me back around to where I started, with the point that Cradle of Champions represents a new standard for character-driven narrative documentary. By bringing these figures to life in such detail, without forcing any points, but simply by observation and shrewd editorial decisions, the film captures a sincerity and authenticity that ought to make it the envy of any feature filmmaker.