What we loved in 2021, pt. 4: Realscreen weighs in on the year’s best non-fiction

At the close of each year, we poll members of the Realscreen team to find out what non-fiction and unscripted programming drew them in, and this year is no exception. ...
December 20, 2021

At the close of each year, we poll members of the Realscreen team to find out what non-fiction and unscripted programming drew them in, and this year is no exception. For the fourth and final installment in our look at what we loved to watch in 2021, we hear from our new associate editor, Andrew Tracy.

What we loved in 2021: part one
What we loved in 2021: part 2
What we loved in 2021: part 3

Even as boxing continues its seemingly perpetual decline as any kind of mainstream attraction, its inherent drama – which can still occasionally make one temporarily forget about the naked greed, vicious exploitation and tawdry sideshow garishness that have ever and always shall accompany it – continues to make it the most symbolically, metaphorically and allegorically rich of sports.

Of course, the toweringly exceptional figure of Muhammad Ali, with his supercharged intervention in the chaotic currents of race, religion and politics, will always be the go-to subject for filmmakers looking to show how the sport intersects with wider spheres of social change.

But Showtime’s four-part doc The Kings, which chronicles what many consider to be the last great era of boxing – the series of collisions between Roberto Duran, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler from the late ’70s to the late ’80s – makes a good case for how the lives and careers of these four exceptional fighters both reveal and exemplify various facets of America in the Age of Reagan. This is particularly so in the case of Leonard, whose camera-ready affability and clean-living image made him – like O.J. Simpson and, as the film displays, in stark contrast to Ali – a pointedly apolitical Black icon, as well as an avatar for the ’80s ethos of individual striving and accomplishment over collective action.

While the series maintains its political lens across all four episodes, it thankfully never stretches its fighter-as-metaphor conceit to untenable lengths. The distinctive personalities of all four men come across vividly thanks to the wealth of archival footage – while it’s almost impossible to not get vividness from the slick Leonard or balls-out wild man Duran, the less demonstrative Hearns and Hagler come across just as strongly, particularly the latter’s chip-on-shoulder resentment of his more publicly feted peers.

Director Mat Whitecross and his editing team also display some truly impressive storytelling, particularly in the first episode as they seamlessly shift from one subject’s backstory into the next. Hagler’s presence in the crowd at one of Leonard’s early matches (and then on the undercard of “Sugar” Ray’s belt-winning 1979 bout against Wilfred Benitez) provides a smooth segue into the film’s recounting of “Marvelous” Marvin’s hard-knocks upbringing in Brockton, Massachusetts. Later, we see Leonard acting as TV ringside commentator for one of Hearns’ amateur fights, allowing the filmmakers to transition directly into the “Hitman’s” tutelage under the great trainer Emanuel Steward at Detroit’s legendary Kronk Gym.

Beyond the pretty well-sustained political thesis, it’s this narrative propulsion – coupled with the film’s impressive placing of its subjects in historical context – that makes The Kings such a constantly engrossing watch. In a time when the greatest contemporary fighters, such as WBO welterweight champ Terence Crawford and the dazzling Ukrainian lightweight Vasiliy “The Matrix” Lomachenko, have absolutely zero purchase on the wider public consciousness, this Showtime docuseries is a reminder of how boxing’s brute-simple reduction of competition to its naked essence makes the sport such a powerful conductor of complex social forces.

(Pictured: Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns, ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler, referee Richard Steele. © Chris Cuellar)

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