One of the more bizarre moments in cross-cultural outreach transpired last month when "Against the Ropes" -- a Meg Ryan vehicle inspired by the career of female boxing manager Jackie Kallen -- was named the closing-night feature in the Zora! Celebration of New Black Cinema. Zora Neale Hurston, Butterfly McQueen, Meg Ryan ... not exactly a seamless timeline of sisterhood, is it?
Ostensibly, "Ropes" got the last-minute nod because its director, Charles S. (Roc) Dutton, is an actual nonwhite person, thus fulfilling the festival's prior announcement of "a new film by a contemporary black filmmaker." The rub, though, is that the movie's black characters -- and there are three that qualify as major -- are all featureless satellites to the deathly Caucasian supernova at its center. Its dalliance with crack dens and street jive notwithstanding, this film exists to answer one question: Can a pale-as-milk Midwestern skank find happiness as the manager of a middleweight boxer?
Sure she can, if a tenuous link to reality and a crummy script say so. In this movie's version of events, Jackie, a lifelong devotee of the sport, accepts a dare to take on the stewardship of a fighter she thinks could be doing better. It's virgin territory for anyone of her gender, and it remains to be seen if her distinctive personal attributes -- basically, dressing like a slut and speaking like Annie Potts' "Ghostbusters" character after four glasses of schnapps -- will be help or hindrance. Either way, it beats her day job as an "executive assistant" at the Cleveland Coliseum -- a perpetually demeaning, zero-advancement gig she's taken because it allows her to watch boxing matches for free. (This unbeatable combination of self-esteem and ambition, of course, has us in her corner from the get-go.)
A slight snag presents itself when Jackie learns that the boxer she's supposed to represent is a dope addict. So instead, she signs a contract with his dealer's enforcer, Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), honing him into a professional fighting machine and spending a few brief hours listening to stories of his hard-knock life. Luther soon becomes a thankful teddy bear of a man, and though their relationship is bound to have a few more ups and downs, he will continue to serve no purpose as a character except to comment on Jackie's transition from sympathetic mentor to selfish spotlight junkie and back again. The same reactive role is assigned to her gal pal, Renee (Kerry Washington), and to Felix Reynolds (Dutton himself), the trainer whom Jackie picks to guide Luther's rise. When it comes to keeping the colored folk peripheral, this picture makes "To Kill a Mockingbird" look like "Get on the Bus."
Ryan looks old, tired and dried up, which her people clearly hope will come off as a creative choice. (It isn't.) Still, her performance rings thoroughly false, particularly when she's mouthing phrases like "off the hook," "da bomb" and "kiss my a-a-s-s." The dialogue supplied by writer Cheryl Edwards ("Save the Last Dance") is pretty dire throughout, full of eye-rolling exchanges you won't believe could get past a first draft. Dutton, in his first outing behind the camera, can barely hold a scene together on his way to the next, and the whole film appears cheap and thrown-together: Even the arena sequences seem to take place in a corner of a humbly proportioned soundstage.
We were supposed to see this flyweight of a flick a full year ago, but the decision-makers at Paramount Pictures pulled it from the release queue, saying that the airtime they needed for TV spots was bound to be eaten up by coverage of the Iraqi war. Noticing that the delay of the film ended up outlasting the war itself by a good nine months should give you an indication of how ironclad that excuse is. Maybe the studio was just waiting for the Zora festival to come along.