On the Ropes, a documentary by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, follows for about a year the careers, in and out of the ring, of three young boxers and their trainer, Harry Keitt, at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center in Brooklyn. George Walton, who has already won the Golden Gloves, is poised to make it in the pros; Noel Santiago, a welterweight, has been held back in the ninth grade three times and seems held back in the ring as well -- his confidence is wanting; Tyrene Manson, who is up for the Golden Gloves finals at Madison Square Garden, is implicated in a drug bust, although she is almost certainly innocent of any wrongdoing.
What makes this film so extraordinary is that it takes the clichés we've grown accustomed to about boxing and the inner city and fleshes them out -- makes them shudderingly real. Burstein and Morgen have a hair-trigger instinct for capturing offhand moments of grief and wariness. When Harry, who has brought up all these boxers in the ring and is part father figure and part preacher to them, first meets a big-talking manager interested in handling George, we can see right away in his eyes the presentiment of his fighter's betrayal. Harry was a promising puncher himself before drugs did him in; after spending time in Sing Sing and Attica, he made it back to Bed-Stuy. He is a boxing priest in search of redemption, and George, a possible champion, is his ticket to heaven -- and now he's being lured away. It's a familiar story made fresh by the filmmakers' resounding empathy.
Tyrene's situation culminates in her court trial, which, for sheer lacerating power, beats anything I've seen onscreen all year. It's one thing to read about the injustice of the criminal-justice system -- the way it can bludgeon the already beaten-down. But hearing Tyrene's harrowing defense of herself, of her life, in an atmosphere of such stark indifference, is almost unbearable: It's like watching a life flame out before your eyes.