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Review by Elias Savada
Posted 14 April 2000

Directed by Liam McGrath.

 Starring Francis Barrett, 
Chick Gillen, and Tom Humphries.

Depending on what country you live in, you might think this was a film about left-handed American baseball players. You wouldn’t be alone.

And you’d be wrong. Not about the left-handed part, sure. But it’s Ireland and boxing that take the limelight in this welterweight documentary that’s part of The Shooting Gallery film series at select Loews Cineplex Entertainment sites. The film, an underdog to make it to a theater in most neighborhoods, follows a young, affable contender from his downtrodden RV (or “caravans,” as they call these vehicles in that part of the world) neighborhood outside Galway to Olympic hopeful, a trans-Atlantic road paved with dreams born in the community of Travellers, a society of marginalized citizens ostracized by most of Ireland. Like a beautiful flower blooming in a field of weeds, we find Francis Barrett breaking the social handicaps that have cuffed and taunted his family and neighbors, many living in poverty as the equivalent of Irish gypsies. Francis embodies the stuff of folk and sports hero as he battles discrimination and fierce competition while rising through the amateur ranks to become the first Traveller to gain prominence in the ring. Rocky, move over: there’s a new tiger afoot.

There’s no great filmmaking here, let alone running water or electricity back home. Handheld camerawork blown up from Super16mm indicates the budget constraints. But you’ll find enough rounds of spirit and jabs of honesty that will make you want to believe that miracles do happen, small ones at least. Director Liam McGrath, who trailed the light-welterweight for a few years, paints this social/sports documentary with gray clouds in a skyful of hope, with the short but powerful Francis as the Moses that would lead his people to the promised land. In a biblical sense, the fighter’s staff is personalized by sixty-something Chick Gillen, a former pugilist and local barber-turned-proud-fatherly coach to the lad, sculpting him at the Olympic Boxing Club, a lackluster establishment catering to boys of lesser economic and class backgrounds. Francis’ training facility is the streets, sidewalks, and homes in his immediately vicinity, but more often just a graffiti covered rusting trailer in his backyard, a barren stretch of hillside where his family moved in 1980 with seventeen other families.

Southpaw specifically showcases its subject’s rise from junior boxing to representing his country in the games in Atlanta over a short fifteen-month period. The Great Irish Hope breaks through brutally racist, political-motivated moments to score victories over small minds when he’s not battering opponents in the ring. Nicolas Cruz, previously with Cuba’s national boxing team, provides spiritual and practical career advice that forces Francis to move his training camp to London, but he often returns home and confers with his mentor on strategy.

The first third of the short seventy-seven-minute feature culminates with Francis’ departure for the United States, where journalist Tom Humphries comments on how the focused boy, shown raising his country’s flag to the world during the opening ceremonies, has inspired a nation. Director McGrath emphasizes the same, intercutting the American bouts with the contender’s family and friends back home, their eyes glued to televised images of the blue-trunked warrior battling in the 63.5-kilogram weight class. It’s an anxious, Cinderella moment so early in the film that could have proven a disappointment based on the ultimate outcome. Yet the filmmaker, in keeping with the linear nature of his work, brings Francis home a hero. He marries his girl friend of four years in a multiple ceremony before moving with her back to London to various odd jobs and a training regime that quickly brings him to near simultaneous matches in quest of both the English and Irish ABA championships, a feat not accomplished in over four decades.

After one rousing and apparently nearly unexpected victory, McGrath must have taken a vacation as we have a “five months later” title bringing the audience up to date on Francis and wife Kathleen new parents watching the baptism of their son. The film jigsaws back to the boxer’s Traveller home, where the Barretts are fighting eviction, then to a final nervous bout that may well decide Francis’ professional future.

On the road to the Olympics in Sydney this summer, Southpaw would be a great orientation film for any of the thousands participating down under. As a theatrical feature it’s a simple and refreshing diversion.

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