Fantasia 2022 Review: OUT IN THE RING, The History & Future Of Pro Wrestling From A Queer Perspective
A compelling documentary about the history of LGBTQIA+ wrestlers prowling the squared circle, Ry Levey’s Out in the Ring is solid enough to engage even those unfamiliar or even uninterested in professional wrestling.
For over one hundred years, professional wrestling has been one of the most popular forms of sporting events not only in the United States, but also around the world. In addition to the bigger organizations that most laypeople might know like World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), there are hundreds of smaller regional promotions that are drawing increasingly large and diverse crowds. With this spread, it’s only natural that the audience seeks to identify with the participants, and among these there are many, many performers who belong to the queer community, and their numbers are growing.
Levey’s documentary delves deep into the history of wrestling and its flirtations with queer imagery and themes, taking aim at the hypermasculinity that most people associate with the sport and reminding the viewer that there is a rich history of flamboyance going back to the ‘40s. But not all queer wrestlers reveled in feather boas and vanity, in fact, many playing that role were using the contemporary fears of queerness as a method to get over as heels.
Out in the Ring explores the social mores and gimmicks of dozens of classic wrestlers who posed as effeminate in the days where that was enough to turn a crowd against them. Though it would seem logical that those types of performers would be far in the past, the film gives us ample evidence of big promotions utilizing homophobia in their storytelling until the shockingly recent past. Dozens of archival wrestling clips illustrate the stereotypes that would bring on these rabid reactions, and apart from some of the razzle dazzle and flashing lights of the WWE, a lot of it looks like it could take place today.
However, the doc is not about condemning the past but rather identifying the positive trends, and the second half of the film takes a long look at today’s scenes and the ways it continues to evolve. Out in the Ring features a number of coming out stories, often told in retrospect, from wrestlers like the legendary Pat Patterson, a Canadian icon who became a key mentor for modern day wrestlers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But there are also currently active wrestlers who have come out while actively performing, people like Mike Parrow, a mountain of a man with the demeanor of a kitten who provides one of the film’s key attachment points for audiences. Parrow’s story is complex and compelling, one of the film’s high points.
Beyond individual wrestlers, of which many currently populate mid-level promotions like the increasingly popular All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the film focuses on queer friendly and queer-centric local promotions around the country. These regional organizations, because they are less tied to big sponsors, are freer to embrace their own stories in and out of the ring. Many of these are pretty scrappy operations, but the freedom they gain by that grass roots structure is inspiring and allows the individual performers to connect with their audiences.
One sign of a great documentary is the ability to take a concept that doesn’t interest a viewer on the surface and grab them with a great story. Out in the Ring is exactly that kind of film. A balanced and nuanced look at a century of victories and defeats with inspiring stories, cautionary tales, and plenty of high-flying action to punctuate the strength and power of the movement. This is definitely among the highlights of this year’s Fantasia.