With all this talk about Michelle Rodriguez of late, some might have found themselves wondering: “Wait, where did this talented but hopelessly loud-mouthed Latina come from, anyway?” It’s a testament to her celebrity that the 5’ 4” Bori-Dominicana by way of Jersey City firecracker has embedded herself so deeply into the American consciousness that we don’t even quite remember where it all started. Of course, there was 2001’s The Fast and The Furious, and the 73 other car racing films that it spawned since its release, but few may realize that Rodriguez had actually caught the world’s attention a year earlier, with a small but critically lauded boxing flick called Girlfight.
So, in an effort not to “steal white people’s celebrities,” we are dedicating this week’s Throwback Thursday to the low budget indie phenomenon that earned a then 22-year-old Michelle Rodriguez comparisons to Marlon Brando and near universal praise from the U.S.’ most important film critics, all while the film picked up an armful of awards at Sundance and Cannes.
If you haven’t caught the gist quite yet, Girlfight is a sports drama about a young female boxer who beats the odds and triumphs over adversity. It’s the usual schtick for this type of film, but in this post-Million Dollar Baby world, it’s hard to appreciate the fact that a female lead in a boxing drama was quite literally unheard of before Girlfight. In fact, director Karyn Kusama had trouble securing financing the project for that very reason but, inspired by her own love of boxing, she stuck to her guns until funding finally came together.
The drama focuses on the struggles of hotheaded high school student Diana Guzmán, played by Rodriguez, whose troubled home life causes for erratic and violent behavior at school. When a chance visit to her brother’s boxing training session ignites a newfound passion for pugilism, Diaz bucks naysaying from her abusive father and sexist trainers and goes for the gold, falling in love along the way.
It’s a role that seemed destined for the self-proclaimed tomboy and world renowned buscapleitos, and indeed, were it not for this particular film we may have never known the name Michelle Rodriguez (unless it were some other, future movie star with the same name). In a 2000 interview with Pennsylvania’s The Morning Call, she recalled how years of working as an extra on films like Summer of Sam and For the Love of the Game had left her unfulfilled, and she responded to the open casting call for Girlfight as a sort of last ditch whim before bowing out of the showbiz hustle for good.
In the end, it seems her “pessimistic attitude” and “PMS” [her words, not ours] going into that fateful casting session made just the right impression, even though she showed up an hour and a half late to an audition that director Kusama later admitted was a disaster. Still, there was no denying Rodriguez’s tremendous screen presence and outsized attitude, a combination which seems tailor-made for the role that ultimately skyrocketed her into Hollywood superstardom and laid the foundation for a prolific career as an ass-whooping action hero.
And, while Ms. Rodriguez may not be the most tasteful person when it comes to off the dome tirades, we’ve got to give it up to an actress who has joined an elite class of female artists who have smashed the Hollywood tropes of helpless damsels in distress, to show the world that women are more than capable of kicking their share of ass.