Directed, Written, Narrated and Produced by Chris Bournea
Cinematography by Paul Hill/April Martin
Edited by Paul Hill
I myself don’t know a whole lot about Wrestling as a sport or as entertainment. Back in the 1980s I was a casual fan of the WWF (now known as the WWE) and of G.L.O.W. (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) but that’s because in the 1980s pretty much everybody was a fan of pro wrestling. And for a fan of superhero comics such as myself, there wasn’t really all that much of a difference between Spider-Man and Hulk Hogan. They both wore brightly colored costumes and fought bad guys. I appreciated the athleticism and agility of pro wrestlers as well as their sharp, tight choreography inside the ring. Because if somebody wasn’t paying attention to what they were doing, somebody could get injured, crippled or even killed. But I never took it seriously and for that matter, I didn’t think the wrestlers did.
And then years later I started reading stories and watching documentaries about that period of pro wrestling and discovered a whole other world was at work there. Drug and sexual abuse. Dirty backrooms deals. Shady characters with questionable motives manipulating matches, careers and even the private lives of wrestlers and promoters. Broken marriages and destroyed families. But still, all of this was happening to mostly white pro wrestlers. I was aware of very few African-American pro wrestlers and even those never achieved the fame and popularity of a Rowdy Roddy Piper (who was always my favorite), Ric Flair, Randy Savage or Andre The Giant. And I certainly had no idea of the contributions and extraordinary careers of female African-American wrestlers in the 1950’s and 60s so respectfully and meticulously related in LADY WRESTLER: THE AMAZING, UNTOLD STORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN THE RING.
When I listened to the episode of the Demond Does podcast where Demond Thompson interviewed Chris Bournea about his movie, the female African-American wrestlers were compared to the female African-American mathematicians who put a man on The Moon as depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures”. And while some may say that’s a stretch, I myself don’t think so. Just like the mathematicians, these women wrestlers are a forgotten part of the history of this country who through dedication, determination and plain ol’ hard work became superstars. Their contributions to the tapestry of American culture is of enormous significance and just as fascinating.
What makes this documentary so entertaining and fun to watch is that Chris Bournea interviews some of the lady wrestlers who are still with us and quite smartly he lets them tell their story in the way they want to tell it and for me that’s the meat and potatoes of the movie. While he focuses on three sisters who all became wrestlers (Babs Wingo, Ethel Johnson and Marva Scott) Bournea takes time to put their careers into the larger context and backdrop of professional women’s wrestling at that time as well as the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Movement of the era.
I also appreciated how Bournea takes time with the families of these lady wrestlers and let them talk about how it was growing up with mothers, most of them divorced and single who also had these wild careers. Kim Martin, the daughter of Marva Scott is especially a standout in her reminiscences of her mother’s career and the reverence and respect in her voice as she talks about her mother is both compelling and moving.
These are women who were packaged for their beauty but also trained and worked even harder than their white counterparts to achieve success in and out of the ring. One of my favorites parts of the documentary is hearing how these women were able to visit other countries such as Japan, Australia, Mexico and Canada and see that racism/classism wasn’t just confined to the United States. But they embraced the experience, even though it wasn’t always pleasant and sometimes downright dangerous.
So should you see LADY WRESTLER: THE AMAZING, UNTOLD STORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN THE RING? I should certainly hope that you would. This is a story that is right up there alongside those of other once forgotten Black Heroes such as Bass Reeves, Eugene Bullard and Bessie Stringfield whose stories we have discovered in recent years. If you’re a fan of black female athletes such as Florence Griffith Joyner, Wilma Rudolph, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and The Williams Sisters then you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary. Ramona Isbell, Ethel Brown, Ethel Johnson, Marva Scott and Babs Wingo deserve for their names to be just as well known.
If you’d like to check out the episode of Demond Does about this documentary, say no more. Bounce over HERE and give a listen.
And Mr. Bournea has informed me that the movie will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime in February but if you don’t want to wait that long, then you should go to the LADY WRESTLER Facebook page for information on how to rent it now as well as more information on the movie itself.