'Not everyone's mat is level' -- 'Wrestle' doc examines race and privilege in high school sports


“Wrestle” co-director Lauren Belfer hopes audiences are able "put their privilege into perspective" after seeing the film.

Two by two, teammates carry each other up a steep hill in the opening scene of "Wrestle," a documentary that builds a poignant conversation on the inequities of life -- as it relates to race, class, education and opportunity -- under the framing of high school sports.

No matter the situation, the teammates have each other's back, even when the mat isn't exactly level.

The film, which starts streaming on multiple digital platforms on Tuesday, follows four male wrestlers from the J.O. Johnson High wrestling team in Huntsville, Alabama, leading up to the state championships. The school is on a decline -- facilities have eroded, test scores are slumping -- and is slated for closure. The students are constantly playing catch-up.

At the time of filming, during the 2015-16 academic year, the wrestling team is heading into its third season. But life doesn't allow the student-athletes -- Teague Berres, Jaquan Rhodes, Jamario Rowe, Jailen Young -- to just focus on sports and school. Guided by their coach Chris Scribner, who has had his share of mishaps, but recognizes his privilege allowed him to escape serious consequences, the team has defeated more experienced and better-financed opponents. However, fates such as dealing with a pregnant girlfriend, poverty, incarcerated parents and a near arrest, seem to be never-ending roadblocks to their long-term success.

These are the wrestler's realities, often harsh and complicated. So, why did they allow two seemingly privileged white women directors (the featured team members are all African-American except for one white wrestler) to film their lives?

espnW talked with the directors Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer, who captured over 600 hours of footage, to discuss how they were able to tell the wrestler's stories in an organic manner.

espnW: Why did you decided to document the J.O. Johnson wrestlers for the 2015-2016 season?

Suzannah Herbert: I went down for a wrestling summer camp the summer before the J.O. Johnson season started. And I met around four of the Johnson wrestlers. They really struck me.

Initially we were going to follow the three seniors on the team, just because there's a true narrative right there. But, once we started filming at the start of the season, the four names were really in the film. They were the most open. Their stories intertwined in interesting ways.

espnW: You're not exactly the same demographic as these kids. How did you gain the trust of the student-athletes and of their families?

SH: I'm from the South and it was immediately kind of disarming for them. Something connected us. And I looked at us being women as a positive thing. We felt that we could bring more of a unique perspective to this sport and also to the wrestlers' experiences. They're constantly being told not to cry and to be tough and not to show any emotion, but being with the team and the wrestlers all day, we were a safe space in some ways. We tried to make it comfortable for them to show their emotions.

Lauren Belfer: Part of our job as documentary filmmakers is to let people be who they are in a way that's honest and natural to them. We didn't guide them and never judged them. If they were making mistakes, they had the freedom to do that and to express themselves without fear of any criticism. I think us being there sort of gave them added freedom. They can be around adults who don't have authority over them. We weren't like their parents or teachers. We genuinely wanted to know what it felt like for them to be transitioning into adulthood.

espnW: There were some difficult scenes in the documentary, including players getting caught with marijuana, managing a teen pregnancy, and a near arrest for public urination. Did you ever think, let's pause filming because the situation could be traumatic for these kids?

SH: Yeah, those moments were the most intense. Obviously. But, the kids never asked us to stop filming, even when the police confronted Jailen for public urination and said he was disrespectful.

Yeah, and at that moment, I felt like the camera was my bargaining tool. And the fact that I'm white and I'm documenting this was a way to hold the cops accountable. We talked a lot with Jailen after the incident. And he felt like the situation would've turned out very differently, in a very bad way, if I and Teague (the white wrestler on the team) hadn't had been there.

espnW: Quite often "sports as a savior" is a cinematic trope in films that focus on poor and/or athletes of color. How did you avoid that narrative?

LB: I think that the team was a conduit for a larger story of exploring the portrait of what it's like for these kids to grow up without a lot of resources in the South. And that wrestling served as a support system for each athlete. Though the sport is individual, their struggles were supported by the team.


"Wrestle" co-directors Suzannah Herbert, left, and Lauren Belfer at the Denver Film Festival in November 2018.

SH: We didn't have any illusions that wrestling was going to save them or anything. And that's why we focused on telling the broader story and not ending on [becoming] state champions. We wanted to showcase how their lives unfold in the months after states. And wrestling, of course, provides them with so much and helped them get into colleges and provides for them in many ways. But, Jaquan and Jailen both got academic scholarships. It wasn't just sports.

espnW: Coach Chris is a white man from what seems to be an upper-middle-class background. He has perspective on his privilege and confronts that head-on. Was that intentional to avoid the "white savior" narrative?

LB: When Suzannah first went down to that summer training camp, she met Chris when she met the team. The perspectives were built concurrently. And we've all seen those movies, the white savior -- it's a part of many sports narratives, and a trope that we feel is dishonest. Because these aren't superhero stories. It was important and essential that the story was about the kids and that the coach is there as a strong sub-character. It is intentional that the film is through their perspectives to sort of push against the blind spots of the world.

We're lucky that Coach Chris was very candid in his vulnerability and I think that he comes from such a different life experience and such a different place of privilege. And you see him figuring out where the boundaries are for him to relate to these kids in a way that is beneficial to them, and I think you see him push too hard, but then you see him also triangulate and figure out the ways that match their needs. He has an epiphany about what it's like to be young men in their situations versus what his own experience was growing up.

We hope that by the end of the film, the audience's takeaway is similar to his and that they can put their privilege into perspective and realize that unfortunately, this is a mat that's not level. It's not equal for all kids growing up, and some kids no matter how hard they try, and how hard they fight and how good they are, the opportunities don't necessarily exist in equal measure.

This interview has been edited for length. 

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