'Ringside': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
'Hoop Dreams' with gloves.

German director Andre Hormann documented two young boxers on Chicago's South Side in this Berlinale Generation premiere.

A touching chronicle of two young men fighting to survive both professionally and personally, Ringside is an emotional gut-punch of a boxing documentary that follows what happens when the final bell rings, the crowd goes home and the gloves come off.

Shot over a period of eight years by German director Andre Hormann, the film recalls Hoop Dreams in its portrayal of a pair of athletically gifted teenagers trying to make it big on Chicago’s perilous South Side, although it’s less of a sprawling and comprehensive ethnographic study and more of a traditional triumph-over-adversity tale. World premiering in the Berlinale’s Generation sidebar and surprisingly absent from Sundance, Ringside should land its punches in select theaters and on major streaming sites.

Back around 2010, Hormann began filming a pair of underage Chi-Town fighters with considerable potential: the junior Golden Gloves champ Destyne Butler Jr. and the Olympic hopeful Kenneth Sims Jr. Both boys were still in their mid-teens but already serious contenders on the local circuit. And both had the support of hardworking fathers — also named Destyne and Kenneth — who did whatever they could to accompany their sons on the long and painful path to a pro boxing career.

But before they could even grow up, both boxers also experienced major setbacks that would make their odds of succeeding all-the-more improbable. In the case of the latter, it was losing a bout that would disqualify him for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. And in Destyne’s case, it was getting arrested for committing a handful of robberies, landing him a four-year jail sentence that would severely hamper his chances as a fighter.

Ringside shows the boys facing constant obstacles in and out of the ring, though the title makes it clear that the focus is as much on them as it is on their two dads, who offer unwavering support and do everything they can so their boys don’t end up like they did. (At one point, Destyne Sr. admits to having been a former drug dealer.) “I’ve pretty much sheltered him from everything,” Kenneth’s father, who is also his trainer, explains later on. “There’s been a system set up around him so he doesn’t fail.”

Destyne’s dad, who now works as a super in a swanky downtown high-rise, has a harder time keeping his son in check, though it’s not for wont of trying. He hires a lawyer to get his son out of prison and into a military-style boot camp, only to frustratingly see him broken down and dejected by all the abusive training. And he’s there once again when Destyne Jr., now a foot taller, is finally released, leading to a devastating scene where we see the young ex-con struggling to make it through a simple sparring match.

Although the film doesn’t necessarily concentrate on the violent climate of the South Side, that reality nonetheless filters through when a fellow boxer and close friend of Kenneth’s is gunned down. Indeed, it seems that despite their differences, what Destyne and Kenneth have in common is the way they try to channel the dangers of the streets into a disciplined if highly aggressive form of sportsmanship that may be their only ticket out. (Boxing and South Chicago youth were already the subjects of French sociologist Loic Wacquant’s excellent study, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer.)

Efficiently edited by Vincent Assmann to condense eight years into 90-odd minutes, Ringside is perhaps a tad too story-oriented and doesn’t take enough time to explore either the technical aspects of boxing (we only see one or two fights, and those only briefly) or the social and economic issues of the neighborhood. But what Hormann does do extremely well is depict the intimate relationships at his film’s core, concentrating on the sustained emotional encouragement the boys need to get by and the long, arduous battle their fathers face to keep their sons both safe and successful.

By the time Destyne and Kenneth partake in their final bouts onscreen, the viewer is fully aware of what the stakes are — of how much winning or losing means for them and those who toiled so hard to get them there. Like many great boxing movies, Rocky included, what happens in the ring in Ringside is the culmination of all the battles won and lost outside of it.  

Production companies: Sutor Kolonko, Motto Pictures
Cast: Kenneth Sims Sr., Kenneth Sims Jr., Destyne Butler Sr., Destyne Butler Jr.
Director: Andre Hormann
Producers: Ingmar Trost, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements
Executive producer: Ken Pelletier, Mark Mitten, Carolyn Hepburn
Cinematographer: Tom Bergmann
Editor: Vincent Assmann
Composer: Amanda Jones
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation 14plus)
Sales: Submarine

95 minutes