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The interrogative word “why” lingers around acts of discrimination like a foul odor. Why make it more difficult for Black people to vote? Why prevent LGBTQ+ folk from getting married? Why pay women less than men? When institutions (and sometimes individuals) respond to these questions, their answers are usually bloated, unsatisfying and full of patent falsehoods. The truth, after all, is relatively uncomplicated.
LFG, an absorbing and lucid HBO Max documentary about the U.S. women’s soccer national team’s fight for equal pay, makes that clear in its first half hour: “They refuse to pay the women equally,” Jeffrey Kessler, an animated, gray-haired and spectacled labor lawyer and the players’ lead counsel, says of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s pay gap, “because they thought they could get away with it.” Or at least they tried.
Venue: Tribeca (Spotlight Documentary)
Airdate: Thursday, June 24 (HBO Max)
Director-screenwriters: Andrea Nix Fine, Sean Fine
After decades of dominating their sport and winning more championships than their male counterparts, the women were tired of being paid less. They were frustrated that the men’s team earned more when they won games and qualified for and advanced in tournaments like the World Cup. In March 2019, during their training camp, the women’s team captains called a secret meeting with the other players and announced they were suing the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Directed by Andrea Nix Fine and her husband, Sean Fine, LFG (which cheekily stands for Let’s Fucking Go) intimately chronicles the years-long gender discrimination lawsuit the U.S. women’s soccer team pursued against their employer. This is not the first time the duo has taken on a complex, loaded subject: Their previous documentaries include the Academy Award-winning War/Dance, which followed a group of school children in northern Uganda, and more recently Life According to Sam, a delicate observational portrait of life with the incurable disease progeria.
As with their previous films, the Fines align themselves with the underdogs. They position the battle between the women’s soccer team and the Federation as one between David and Goliath — although Goliath declined to participate in any on-air interviews. Emotional testimonies, practical analysis from members of the players’ legal and strategic counsel and clips of the women crushing their competition on the field are strung together to thrilling and intense, not to mention inspiring, effect. It’s a doc that invites viewers to lose themselves in the energy of the fight, even at the risk of coming off one-sided and unclear at times. (For example, FIFA determines the bonus money pool for the men’s and women’s teams, not the Federation.)
Still, suing your employer takes guts, and the Fines make the stakes of the players’ decision clear through one-on-one interviews. “Ok, so we’re going to do this really scary thing together that is really important and can impact the world,” Christen Press, a former forward who now plays for Manchester United, recalls of that moment, “at the same time that we put our entire lives and career on the line for each other.” Years later, the disbelief is still apparent on her face and in her voice.
Despite the initial fear and trepidation, the team agreed that they needed to act. Luckily, they didn’t have to go it alone: They hired lawyers and strategists, three of whom appear in the doc. Kessler, Cardelle Spangler (co-lead counsel for the players) and Molly Levinson (a strategic communications advisor) serve as interpreters throughout the film, confidently translating the legal arguments and contextualizing the players’ suit within a larger history of pay inequity in the United States.
Their direct, no-nonsense insights not only establish the levels of discrimination the players are up against, but they also heighten the emotional tenor of the athletes’ personal stories. While many of the featured players, from midfielder Samantha Mewis to defender Kelley O’Hara, get ample screen time, Megan Rapinoe, the co-captain of the women’s team, and Jessica McDonald, who played with the team during the FIFA Women’s World Cup, are centered most prominently. They are the closest the documentary gets to main characters, acting as avatars for a thesis the Fines don’t want to lose sight of: The American dream differs vastly from the American reality.
Rapinoe speaks candidly about how her working-class roots (her father was a construction supervisor and her mother was a waitress) and her brother’s struggle with opioids fuel her desire to change the world. At times the invocation of her past feels practiced, like that of a smooth-tongued rhetorician: “I think I’m the perfect snapshot of America, I’m not from like a crazy, left-wing coastal elite family, or anything. I’m just normal, regular,” she says at one point.
McDonald’s narrative feels less rehearsed, and she speaks fairly emotionally about the challenges of raising her child while pursuing her dreams. The pay she received over the course of her career was so abysmal that she could rarely afford childcare and would often bring her son to practices or leave him with friends.
At the end of the day — and it’s in driving home this point that the documentary is most successful — the fight for equal pay isn’t just about the current players. The women on the national team are part of a generations-long struggle for equity both within their sport and outside of it. What propels their continued resistance is the knowledge that they need to move the needle forward, even if it’s just a little bit.
Venue: Tribeca (Spotlight Documentary)
Distributors: HBO Max, CNN
Production company: HBO Max, CNN, Everywoman Studios, Change Content
Directors-screenwriters: Andrea Nix Fine, Sean Fine
Producers: Andrea Nix Fine, Sean Fine, Abby Greensfelder
Executive producers: Howard Owens, Courtney Sexton, Ben Silverman
Cinematographer: Sean Fine
Editors: Jeff Consiglio
Composer: Cyrus Melchor
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