REVIEW: In This Dazzling Doc, Namibia Flores Rodriguez Fights Against a Boxing Ban for Women in Cuba

Courtesy of NYLFF.

Boxer Namibia Flores Rodriguez slows down for no one. Her electric presence fills every frame of Maceo Frost’s documentary Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight with the unending energy of a seasoned fighter. Her Rocky-style training montages feel fast and frenetic, and for good reason. She’s not just in competition with her opponent in the ring. Namibia is also facing down a government ban on women in boxing, and approaching her 40th birthday which will make her officially too old to pursue her dream of going to the Olympics.

Neither of these problems deters Namibia’s rigorous training regimen. Her eyes are fixed on her goals, and over the course of the documentary, we learn not just more about her background and growth into perhaps one of Havana’s best untested boxers, but also the pain that can come with patriotism. In Cuba, sports intersects with politics just as tightly as in every other aspect of life. Namibia’s longtime trainer at the Rafael Trejo Gym boasts how Fidel Castro is the nation’s best athlete but even he later acquiesces that his promising student may need to leave the country to pursue a career in boxing, a profession that officials have deemed too dangerous for Cuban women and their delicate looks. “Just because I’m a woman, I can’t represent my country,” she says bitterly. “I can’t represent the colors of my flag.”

Namibia’s story refutes those sexist beliefs with stunning poignancy. At first, she seems like the lone underdog, waiting for the government to let her shine and endlessly training in the meantime. Then, the documentary opens to include other women who are looking to pursue boxing as she has. Namibia is not just a sparring partner for these women, but a mentor and a source of inspiration, showing them what fighting “like a girl” really looks like. In one moving scene where she’s comforting another frustrated boxer, Namibia fills in the blanks of her back story by sharing how she coped with a mother who didn’t support her, homelessness, hunger and sexual abuse. She encourages the other young woman to cry out her tears and pick herself back up. Their fight is not over yet.

Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight follows in the nimble steps of Frost’s short, Namibia: Cuba’s Female Boxing Revolution. Watching the two back-to-back, you can spot the moments that were so effective in the first project that compelled them to make it into a feature-length doc wholesale. Like the short, Frost’s debut feature also sports a lively soundtrack with pulsating Afro-Cuban songs and quick edits that enhance the frenetic footwork of the fighters and Namibia’s daily training sessions. There’s a particularly beautiful assembly of shots that follow Namibia running in different parts of Havana that is skillfully cut together to make it seem like she’s running in place as the buildings change around her. Whether she’s running up several flights of stairs or punching sandbags in the yard, the movie consistently keeps the energy up. This is also apparent in the parallels the film makes between boxing and dancing, another one of Cuba’s storied pastimes. Using the trainer’s story of how Cubans get their groove from before they were born, the documentary flits back and forth between the grungy open-air gym where Namibia trains and the physical, showy nature of Afro-Cuban dance.

Frost’s camera follows Namibia closely, but he also captures a sense of the community that has stepped in to support and cheer her on. There are dazzling shots of the old corners of the city, the neighborly way people will call out to her from their windows and sights of Namibia’s hardscrabble life. She’s still struggling to survive, and just as importantly, she’s struggling to be taken seriously by the country she’s sacrificed so much for already. The film alternates between digital and 16 mm footage, which gives those moments a darker undertone than the others. This is just one of the number of hints for the audience that not everything goes according to the boxer’s plans.

Namibia carries an impossible weight on her toned shoulders. Behind her steely gaze, there is a lifetime of pain she has turned into resilience. There’s a determination in her that would rival most anyone’s, and as Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight proves, she is far from the only one to feel this way. Namibia hopes that the next generation of boxers and that of her young niece will be able to compete just like the men. Until then, she remains ready to fight at a moment’s notice — fists up, hand-me-down gear on and defensive stance deployed — waiting until it’s her turn to win battles one punch at a time.

Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight screened at the New York Latino Film Festival.