Review by William J. Hammon, ActuallyPaid.com
There’s an old poetic proverb that has crossed generations, saying, “Man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” It’s an ageless mantra of the absolute truism that women can wear any number of hats on any given day, and yet their tenacity and perseverance allows them to find some way to get it all done. Directors Cassie Hay and Amy Winston illustrate that exact point with Queens of Pain, but also explore the angle of what happens when this endless work consists of multiple labors of love. This profile of Gotham Girls Roller Derby is not only an intriguing look into the world of roller derby as a sport, but also gives us unique insight into the day-to-day lives of those who devote everything to it. The women featured here are fully committed to something many of us would overlook, even when life inevitably gets in the way. That dedication combined with the genuine humanity of these nontraditional athletes leads to some truly remarkable stories. Add in some great production values to enhance the overall narrative (and an awesome punk soundtrack), and you’ve got the best documentary I’ve seen so far this year.
Centering on the 2018 “Home Team” season, which is a round robin tournament of teams from four of the five boroughs (sorry, Staten Island), the film keys in on three separate competitors at different stages of their derby careers. The first is Jean Schwarzwalder, aka Suzy Hotrod, a “jammer” with the titular team from Queens. She’s something of a celebrity in the sport, and has brought national attention to it. She’s agreed to be one of the best – if not the best – at the game, and she’s hungry for another local title before age takes her out of the sport.
Suzy is a stone-cold badass, and a brilliant ambassador for roller derby. She’s cool, funny, and has a sticker of Mr. Poopybutthole from Rick and Morty on her helmet. How do you not love her? But more importantly, she succinctly explains the best form of competitiveness, in that the league is one large community that will go into a “bout” wanting to beat each other to a pulp, even temporarily hating each other, before switching it right back off and becoming a loving and supporting group of friends who all contribute to the success of the league. It’s an amazing dichotomy, and one that certainly wasn’t taught in youth sports when I was playing. Usually it was one or the other. It was either have fun knowing it doesn’t really matter and we’ll never become pros, or be super competitive and blow past every “loser” in your path to glory. Suzy shows us that there’s a time and a place for both mindsets, and that you can strike a balance between the two without sacrificing anything. That’s not only a valuable lesson, it’s just downright inspirational.
Next is Eva McClosky, who goes by Evilicious when she plays for Brooklyn. She’s been in the league for 14 seasons, and she’s served as a captain for her team. However, the previous year she got pregnant unexpectedly, giving birth to son Tiger (who is just adorable). Now she has to find a way to juggle her job, her passion, and motherhood as she tries to get cleared to return to competition. She stands as a testament to what happens when life throws its curveballs at you. Her entire story arc is a test of her tenacity and a statement of agency as she mostly gets to set the parameters for her own happiness, even when they conflict with what others would expect from her.
Finally, there’s Elizabeth Santiago Kearney, a rookie in the league who plays for the Diamond District development squad under the fantastic nickname, Captain Smack Sparrow. A former dancer who’s dealt with body issues for most of her life, she’s struggling to find full-time work while raising her daughter, honing her game, and just for good measure, getting ready for her wedding. In a sport that’s all about getting knocked down but finding ways to get back up and return the favor, Sparrow shows just how much of a commitment the derby can be, and how it’s all worthwhile if you’re doing something you truly love.
All three women are essentially portrayed as different stages of a life cycle, and it’s very effectively composed. Sparrow is the young, eager one. Evilicious is in transition, essentially going through a midlife crisis. Suzy, while only 37, is the elder statesman, passing on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation while still showing the youngins a thing or two.
In addition to the just masterful profiles on display, Hay and Winston give us just enough of the nuts and bolts of the sport to make sure we’re engaged and rooting for these women throughout the course of the season. There’s some history of derby’s pro wrestling-esque roots as a fake spectacle in the 80s, so that we appreciate how much the game has come into its own, growing from a joke into something serious. Suzy explains enough of the rules so that we can understand what we’re seeing on the screen as the matches unfold. Cinematographer Joe Mayo shoots the film like a prestige sports drama, giving us both dramatic live angles and some immaculate slow motion cuts along the way. I got Chariots of Fire flashbacks quite a few times, and that just made things all the more exciting. The camera work here is just top notch.
But more than anything, I absolutely loved how all three women – as well as the ancillary players and volunteers we meet – truly give their all. Commitment is a pervading theme throughout, and Hay and Winston show us just how deep that runs. None of the players hold any illusions that they’ll become millionaires from this. All of them have or are pursuing full-time jobs over the course of the season because despite their enthusiasm, they still have to pay rent in New York City. Sparrow in particular has a hard go of it, because as a Diamond, she has a set number of hours she has to devote to practice and working at the events before she can ever actually play, and then on top of this she has to get up in the middle of the night for 40 hours plus overtime working for FedEx. I was in awe of just how well they pulled themselves together knowing that it was just for the love of the game.
The old adage is that if you do a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. This film shows us the other side of that idea, because these women are working their asses off just to work them off again in the rink, and it’s amazing how much of themselves they’re able to devote to the game, especially when you see the crowds lining up under unassuming scaffold to get inside. Nothing about their venue sticks out, and people have to make an effort to see them when it could easily be ignored. But in a superlative display of just how much women can shoulder and still literally run circles around you, Queens of Pain shows us that if you want to see something awesome, these qladies have a ton to show you.