First Match: the story of a teen girl competing on an all-boys wrestling team
Wearing a green singlet and black wrestling shoes, a black girl torpedoes herself toward the legs of her male rival. He drops to the mat, pinned below her. The referee raises her arm to signal her victory. The nights the girl spent fighting another girl of color in the makeshift ring of a nonlegal fight club have paid off. This is the story of Monique a girl who competes on an all-boys wrestling team while simultaneously juggling the foster care system, school, and getting back in touch with her absent father.
First Match (2018), the first feature film by writer-director Olivia Newman, recently premiered at South by Southwest, where the movie won the Audience Award for a narrative feature and Newman won the Gamechanger Award. While the narrative was first a short film at the 2011 New York Film Festival, the Sundance Institute supported Newman via its prestigious Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Lab.
Olivia Newman recently spoke to the FBomb about why minorities’ stories must be told on the screen and about First Match, which premieres on Netflix on March 30.
First Match depicts a teen girl who joins a boys’ wrestling team. Why did you chose this subject matter?
First Match evolved from a short film by the same name that I wrote and directed as my thesis film for my MFA from Columbia University. At the time, I was really intrigued by the growing number of girls taking up wrestling in high school. Because there still weren’t enough girls to form their own leagues, they had to join the boys’ wrestling teams in order to compete. I began to wonder about the physical and emotional experience of co-ed wrestling. How does it feel to grapple on a mat with a boy at a time when peer pressure to conform to strict gender roles is at its most acute? What draws these girls to participate in a full-contact sport at such a tenuous time in their lives? What are their stories? And how does wrestling boys affect their game?
Knowing very little about wrestling, I set out to learn everything I could about the sport and to meet as many girl wrestlers as possible. Over the course of several months, I attended wrestling practices, dual meets, and tournaments all over New York City and interviewed dozens of girls who were wrestling on boys’ teams. Their stories and anecdotes informed the script for the short film, and I ended up casting one of them to play the lead role. Nyasa Bakker, a four-foot-10-inch varsity wrestler from Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, had never acted before, but she had incredible presence and charisma, and was an amazing wrestler. At the first dual meet where we met, I watched her walk across the mat and pin a boy in two periods.
Nyasa and I became fast friends while making the short film and then while traveling with it to festivals. It premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2011 and went on to win a number of awards at film festivals, including Best Student Short at Aspen Shortsfest and best female performance at the Philadelphia FirstGlance Film Festival. But even while shooting the short, I felt like there was more I wanted to explore about this world of urban co-ed wrestling.
One of the girls on Nyasa’s team had a profound effect on me and eventually became the inspiration for the character of Mo in the feature. Gracie, a bubbly 14-year-old, loved flirting with the boys on her team, yet insisted they were her “brothers.” On the mat, though, Gracie did not hold back her aggression. She loved being strong. Then, at one practice, I noticed that Gracie was unusually irritable, snapping easily at her teammates. I learned from her coach that Gracie’s grandparents had decided not to adopt her. I knew Gracie lived with a foster mother who barely spoke to her, but I didn’t know she had been holding out hope of moving in with her grandparents. I understood then that the wrestling team was a placeholder for the “real” family she dreamed of, and I knew that I wanted to further explore a character like Gracie who finds an unexpected family through a nontraditional sport.
Over the years, as Nyasa and I grew closer, she shared stories with me about growing up in Brownsville, and I became interested in the neighborhood as a backdrop for the story. Brownsville is just over 1.5 square miles and is one of the most economically depressed areas of New York City, yet it has birthed dozens of legends, including boxers like Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, and Shannon Briggs; NBA basketball player and community leader Gregory Jackson; the first African-American chess grandmaster, Maurice Ashley; community activist Rosetta Gaston; civil rights activist Al Sharpton; and numerous hip-hop artists like RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Sean Price, and Ka. When I learned that there was an underground girl fight club in Brownsville that some women participated in as a means to pay the bills, it felt like the antithesis of wrestling. And yet, I thought that this club might create a real dilemma for a young girl wrestler, desperate for money, who was skilled enough to take part in a fight for pay.
The script went through several labs including the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors labs and the Cine Qua Non Screenwriting lab in Mexico, and started garnering funding through generous grants from the Sundance Institute, IFP/Durga Foundation, San Francisco Film Society, Tribeca All Access, Adrienne Shelly Foundation, and the Maryland Filmmakers fellowship. This allowed me to keep developing the script while raising my two young kids. When Netflix stepped in with the financing, a project five years in the making was finally realized.
The protagonist in this film is a young black girl who was raised in low-income foster homes. How do you think about approaching the depiction of your protagonist's intersectional experiences on the screen?
As a writer and viewer of films, I think it is vital that we see more women portrayed in all of their complexities and humanity. So when I was writing the script for First Match it was a priority to make Monique a real, nuanced, complex character. Yes, she has experienced her share of challenges — from losing her mother at a young age, to losing her father when he went to prison, to bouncing from one foster care home to the next. And the effect this has had on her is sometimes expressed through her anger and distrust of others. But she has also experienced a lot of love and is capable of caring deeply for others. She was raised by a father who loves her, despite his own shortcomings and poor choices. Her best friend Omari, with whom she grew up and has remained friends, is devoted to her like a brother. And the bonds she eventually forms with her coach, teammates, and foster mother, Lucila, speak to Mo’s ability to empathize and connect with others.
This film also takes on black masculinity. While the protagonist's father has been absent from her life, her coach becomes something of a loving father figure. How did you think about depicting masculinity in the film?
As with all of the characters in the film, it was important to me that the two father figures — Darrel and Coach — are portrayed in all of their complexities, and that we really get a sense that the way they see the world and the judgments they make are shaped by their own life experiences and privilege (or lack thereof). In some ways you could say Darrel is more progressive than Coach in his views on gender: he tells Mo right from the start that she shouldn't care what other people think of her wrestling boys. But part of his support of her wrestling is also selfish: it makes him feel better about himself, seeing her be good at something he taught her. In that way, he is supportive of her in so long as she is an extension of himself.
Coach, you could argue, sees the world in more traditional, black and white terms. Initially he hesitates about letting a girl on the boys’ team, and even after she makes varsity, he fully admits that he wouldn’t let his own daughter wrestle. So he is still struggling with his own biases, even after embracing Mo. Part of this also comes from Coach being a bit older than Darrel, so he came up at a time when girls were even more boxed into certain roles.
By the end of the film, when Mo asks Coach to have mercy on her father, what I hope we take away from the interaction is that Mo has made Coach see the world a little differently. People don’t always fit into a box of male/female, good/bad. Yes, Darrel may have made a lot of bad decisions in his life, but he was also trying to take on the responsibility of fatherhood at a time when he was still a kid himself. So my hope is that through these two male characters, we see how much one’s life circumstances, education, access to resources, etc., shape the way they carry themselves, view the world, and interact with others. It’s never simple.
We've recently seen a lot of encouragingly complex depictions of black women on screen — from last year's Hidden Figures, to the women of Black Panther and beyond. Do you think this shift in representation is lasting? What we can do to ensure it is?
I have been so inspired and excited by the increasing representation of strong, smart, black women on screen. At a time when the news headlines make me anxious on a daily basis and the world feels upside down and backwards, the record-breaking box office success of films like Black Panther and Hidden Figures gives me hope. It says to me that we are more united than our current administration would have it seem. It says that audiences are craving stories and representations of strong female role models of all races and creeds, and in all genres.
The only way to insure that this is not a phase is to keep putting our money where our mouth is. Go see these movies on the big screen not once, but twice. I cried more during the second viewing of Black Panther than at the first. Tell your friends to buy tickets. Show those people who hold the purse strings that these stories and films matter and have an audience, a very LARGE one.
But it’s not just the responsibility of audiences. Studios and film financiers have to be willing to take more risks. When I was trying to raise money to make First Match, I got told over and over that my film was a big “risk” financially because I had an all-black cast and no bankable star (code word: white male actor). I even got asked a few times if I’d consider making the coach white. The answer was always a definitive NO.
And then Netflix came along. The amazing thing about Netflix is that they are not beholden to foreign sales and box office numbers. They can finance a project based on the quality of the story and the talent of the team behind it. They believed that First Match was a story that needed to be told, and I’ll be forever grateful.
I think the industry is changing. The way people watch movies is changing. More and more content is being watched at home on streaming services. So we have to stop judging a film’s “success” by box office numbers. Would I love for First Match to be on as many giant screens as Justice League? For sure. As a filmmaker, I don’t think there is a better way to see a movie than in a theater with a community. But I am also aware that MORE people might actually watch my film on Netflix than they would if they had to buy a $15 ticket to see it at a theater. So for me, getting studios to put more money behind films like First Match is important, but it’s also important as an independent filmmaker to embrace new platforms for viewing our films. The goal is to share these stories with as many people as possible, period. Maybe one day that will be in both theaters and online equally.
For now, starting March 30, First Match will be accessible to millions of viewers around the world. So I think as we wait for the studios to “take more risks” on a more diverse range of stories and characters, we can begin to change the zeitgeist by choosing alternative platforms for our movies. And we must continue to point to films like Moonlight, which was made for around the same budget as First Match, and point to huge studio flicks like Black Panther and Wonder Woman, and say, “These are not the exceptions, these are the rules!”
The movie industry has also seen the recent rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. What is it like being a female director in this climate? Do you think these movements have, or potentially will, influence your work?
I am so inspired and excited by the energy of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. It feels long overdue but very empowering. I hope they represent a significant paradigm shift, not just in the film industry but in all workplaces. Seeing women in positions of power and privilege speak their truths and offer support and financial help to other women with less power and privilege is incredibly inspiring and reassuring.
When we were crewing up for First Match, we made it a mandate to hire as many women and people of color on our crew as possible. As a result, our crew was over 60 percent female (23 percent is average), 100 percent of key creatives were women, and 75 percent of all department heads were women. My reason for wanting to fill out our crew with as many women as possible was twofold: The film was focused on a young woman, and I wanted our lead actress who was going to be carrying the movie, her very first leading role in a feature film, to feel empowered and totally safe surrounded by other strong, creative women. And I also feel strongly that in order to bring other women and people of color up the ranks in an industry dominated by white (privileged) men, we need to hire more women and people of color in all positions across the board. Just because it may be harder to find that amazing woman DP, for example, doesn’t mean she isn’t out there or is any less talented. And regardless of gender, I feel like I worked with THE MOST talented crew.
So yes, I think I have been influenced by some of the same energy and ideas behind these movements even before they were given a name. But now, having women in positions of power embracing the notion of “inclusion riders” and zero tolerance for sexual harassment or discrimination, I feel even more emboldened as a woman writer-director to demand my place at the table and to make films focused on women and marginalized communities. I am excited to contribute to the movement in any way I can!
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