In the opening moments of Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible, you can't help but think to yourself "Here comes another inspirational sports doc!," a feeling fueled not just by the awareness that this is an ESPN Films presentation but also the presence of Frank Kipp, a third-generation boxer whose entire aura radiates a sort of inspirational compassion.
But, Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible is more. Much more.
Co-directed by Kristen Lappas and Tom Rinaldi, Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible is one of the truly unforgettable doc shorts screening this year during the 2020 Indy Shorts International Film Festival where it's screening as a finalist in the Finalist 2 block of shorts. Starting simply enough, the film captures the beautiful land that encompasses the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana that is larger than the state of Rhode Island yet has barely a couple dozen police officers to cover it.
Why does such a fact matter in a sports doc?
Started by Kipp, the Blackfeet Boxing Club was established as a way for kids, especially young women, to learn how to defend themselves on the Blackfeet Reservation. While the Indigenous people on the Blackfeet Reservation make up 3% of Montana's population, their women and girls make up 30% of those who go missing or are murdered in the state of Montana. Blackfeet Boxing Club kicks off heartbreakingly, a small search party looking through heavy brush, wooded areas, and abandoned trailers in search of Ashley Loring Heavyrunner, one of over 5,000 missing or murdered Indigenous women. Ashley went missing in 2017 and her friends and family continue to search for her or search for answers after police botched the initial investigation and left little hope that they would ever discover Ashley's whereabouts.
Ashley's fate, still lingering in the community with flyers that hang just about everywhere, lingers in the eyes of the young girls and young women who walk through the doors of Blackfeet Boxing Club. They know they're learning more than just boxing - they're learning how to fight back and they're learning how to survive. For Kipp, whose daughter Donna is one of the club's most promising boxers, it's a passionate commitment to protect his community and he tells all of the girls and women that the doors of the club are always open.
Simultaneously devastating yet hopeful, Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible is about a tragedy that has for far too often not mattered in this country and still, for many, it's something that local, state, and federal officials have done very little about. In addition to telling Donna's story, Blackfeet Boxing captures the more volatile story of 14-year-old Mamie Kennedy, a young boxer said to have Olympic potential but whose home life is wildly unstable and whose behavior is increasingly unpredictable. You can feel the weariness in here eyes, yet she's the kind of teen you'll be rooting for even as the closing credits are rolling by.
Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible is an inspirational sports doc, but it's also a profoundly human cinematic experience that captures the ways in which sports can change lives and the ways in which they can also serve to inspire communities and inspire movements. Nearly every young woman captured in Blackfeet Boxing has this look in her eyes that says "Ashley could have been me" and you can equally see in their eyes a determination to have this generation be the generation that stands up and says "No more!"
Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible is a beautiful motion picture that captures the woundedness of a community, however, Lappas and Rinaldi dig deeper and showcase that community's strength, resilience, hope, and determination. Beautifully photographed and compassionately told, Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible is one of 2020's best doc shorts.
*Editor's Note: Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible picked up the $5,000 Grand Prize for Best Documentary Short Film at Indy Shorts and is now Academy Award-qualified.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic