Million Dollar Baby: a film to love and hate

As part of the class I teach on theology and popular culture, we watched Clint Eastwood’s Oscar award-winning 2004 film Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood is a director whose films have gotten better as he aged, and Million Dollar Baby is no exception. Celebrity film critic, Roger Ebert, said of the movie:

Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” is a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true. It tells the story of an aging fight trainer and a hillbilly girl who thinks she can be a boxer. It is narrated by a former boxer who is the trainer’s best friend. But it’s not a boxing movie. It is a movie about a boxer. What else it is, all it is, how deep it goes, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death. This is the best film of the year.

If you haven’t seen it by now, you might consider watching it before reading on – although I knew the ending before seeing it, and, frankly, I’m glad I did. Sometimes it helps to know what’s coming.

As a movie, it’s certainly of the highest quality. Eastwood elicits mood by careful use of a dark pallet, contrasts in shadow and light, and a pared down soundtrack. It’s unhurried storytelling, but always compelling. As well as directing, Eastwood plays the lead role of Frankie, an ageing boxing coach, and although we’ve seen his ‘grumpy exterior/soft as butter interior’ old man act before, it remains a delight to experience his often-wordless communication; a glance, a raised eyebrow, a grunt, speaking volumes. Hillary Swank deserved her best actress Oscar for paying Maggie, an aspiring boxer fiercely determined to escape her trailer park background.

Boxing is used throughout as a metaphor for life:

“If there’s magic in boxing, it’s the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys, and detached retinas. It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”

“Some people claim to love boxing. They got no idea what it is. Boxing is about respect. Getting it for yourself… and taking it away from the other guy.”

“everything in boxing is backwards, sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back.”

“Anybody can lose one fight. You’ll come back from this. You’ll be champion of the world.”

So says than narrator, Morgan Freeman (who also took home an Oscar for best supporting actor), playing Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris, a retired boxer working in Frankie’s gym as a cleaner.

Taken altogether, Million Dollar Baby is a Hollywood at its best. And at its worst.

I’ll get to my real gripe in a second (and you still have time to pull out if you’re worried about spoilers), but one of the themes the film highlights is the power of individual determination; “some people say the most important thing a fighter can have is heart.” Maggie has heart in spades, a fact that is highlighted by the contrast to her family, who are money grabbing, lazy, pension dependent, white trash. And it is this contrast that is my first problem with the film. While individual virtue is important, Eastwood’s portrayal exemplifies the ideology of Western individualism; Maggie’s lazy-arse family’s poverty is their own doing – they lack heart and so earn the degradations of their parasitic sloth. It is hard to imagine a more cartoonish depiction of welfare recipients. At one point, Maggie gifts her mother a house. Her mother’s response? To complain that the gift will impact her pension! It is Tea Party welfare bashing at its silliest.

The film also imagines itself as an affirmation of female power, but throughout it buys into white male authority and female submissiveness. On the one hand, Maggie is a determined barrier-breaking woman, making her way in the masculine sport of boxing. But that end is achieved by way of a stereotypical patriarchal relationship. When Frankie reluctantly agrees to train her, he says to Maggie, “If I take you on, you don’t question me and I’m going to try and forget that you’re a girl!” Of course, he never forgets, and this daddy/daughter submissive relationship is sustained throughout. More to the point, Maggie is given no meaningful relationship with other female characters. There is no female mentor. What we have is just another movie where a woman’s success comes from her submissive dependence on a strong man.

But you won’t be surprised that it was the film’s portrayal of disability that most annoyed me. And here is the spoiler. In the title fight to which the story arc of the film had been leading, Maggie receives a foul punch that breaks her neck and renders her a C1 ventilated quadriplegic. I find it hard to watch the aftermath of such injuries at the best of times, but Million Dollar Baby buys into all of the worst of Hollywood’s disability tropes. Maggie’s life as a quadriplegic is not worth living. But what most viewers won’t realise is that Eastwood makes her experience of quadriplegia unlivable by depicting her permanently trapped in hospital, decrepit, lonely, bored. She even gets pressure sores on her arms and legs that result in an amputation. No mention is made of the fact that half decent care would have prevented such injuries, nor that rehabilitation could have helped her to get out and about in her wheelchair and make something of her life. Instead, she remains so utterly dependent on Eastwood that she is not even able to kill herself. Her white male saviour thus makes the ultimate sacrifice (of his Catholic ideals) by performing the inevitable euthanasia. And so Million Dollar Baby ends up as just another cripple snuff film.

And the problematic portrayal of disability doesn’t end with Maggie. Danger (played by Jay Baruchel) has an intellectual disability, and is training with a singular purpose of defeating champion boxer Tommy Hearns. What he doesn’t know, and no one tells him, is that Hearns is long since retired. Eastwood tries to present Danger as the embodiment of the films main theme. He may not have the skills of a boxer, but he has limitless heart. But it’s hard to get past the absurdity of a wannabe boxer who never throws a punch. It seems to me that Danger is nothing more than the embodiment of foolish and pitiable disability, put on the big screen for cheap laughs.

There are other talking points in the film. Although we are not told why, Frankie attends his local Catholic church daily, but is clearly struggling in his faith. His priest is a caricatured shallow dogmatist, who gives Eastwood glib responses to his many questions. It’s a shame, because the theological issues at stake are significant; how might notions of forgiveness and grace help Frankie work through his guilt for past mistakes? And how do we understand the (in)action of God in the context of Maggie’s injury? Euthanasia itself is a theological issue that warrants deeper reflection than the priest’s simplistic, “If you do this thing, you’ll be lost.”

Having made these observations, I am still of the view that Million Dollar Baby is well worth seeing. Apart from it being a compelling film, its great strength is that it provides the opportunity to talk about vital issues, many of which remain at the forefront of public debate. Like all good films, its message is ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. In an era of increasingly polarised opinion, films such as this can provide a common ground upon which alternate perspectives can be discussed. And to that end, I turned the conversation over to you.

2 thoughts on “Million Dollar Baby: a film to love and hate

  1. Great post. Your review of the movie is much more gracious than i remember being after seeing it.
    For hollywood, Disability (spinal injury especially?) is perhaps one of the collection of narrative devices that signifies an ‘unimaginable calamity from which there is no return’ – similarly, a terrorist attack, or planetary destruction, or chaotic revolution – like you suggest, a snuff trope.
    Why though? As a cautionary tale? As a dose of reality? An unconscious tick?
    I read a savage critique of the movie ‘black swan’ that may also apply here, put crudely, ‘the price of a woman’s success is her self destruction’ – pretty cynical, but it’s a hard analysis to ignore once you’ve heard it and see it’s imprint cloned in various forms.

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