Heart, Baby!

By Hans Pedersen, February 2018 Issue.

A boxing movie set in prison in the 1980s may not seem your typical LGBTQ fare. But diverse audiences are likely to appreciate this love story.

This film re-tells the story of a real-life prison romance between an undefeated boxing champ and a transgender-identified devout Christian – as well as the transphobic inmate whose attitude toward their love swiftly evolves.

Heart, Baby! screens Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the ninth annual Desperado LGBT Film Festival. For Echo ‘s complete coverage of the festival, which takes place Feb. 9-11 at Paradise Valley Community College, click here.

Gbenga Akinnagbe stars as George in <i.Heart, Baby! Courtesy photo.

Set in the Central Tennessee State Penitentiary in 1984, the film’s opening scenes unfold in a boxing match. And, keeping us squarely fixed in that era, an ’80s anthem blares out as if on cue.

Reveling in the decade’s corniness just a tad, director and writer Angela Shelton makes it easy to settle into her vision and strong sensibility with her knack for wrapping up human warmth into an aesthetically pleasing tableau in each scene.

Shelton quickly introduces the central characters at the prison chow table. George (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is an African-American guy who robbed a house at the age of 18 and got a 40-year sentence, but time in the slammer has made him a winner in the boxing ring. This wholly likable guy exudes such raw talent in the ring, he sends other contenders to the mat in mere minutes. His pal, Andy aka Doc (Jackson Rathbone), is easy on the eyes, but contributes to his share of hate-mongering against trans folks in this diverse prison setting until the veil is lifted from his eyes.

Then there’s Crystal (Shawn-Caulin Young), a lovely Christian transwoman who quotes verses from the book of 2 Samuel about the love between two men, strengthening her belief in the LGBTQ cause.

Crystal and George have been cellmates for years, and she keeps up their little pink den with a feminine touch. But life isn’t all sunshine for Crystal either, since this gal harbors a harrowing addiction, too.

The Friday boxing nights where George gets his chance to shine is also a night of freedom for the girls; it’s established that’s when they can wear full feminine make-up and hair, as opposed to practice nights when their outfits are restricted.

Shawn-Caulin Young stars as Crystal in Heart, Baby! Courtesy photo.

And while Andy appears homophobic and transphobic at first, viewers will be encouraged by the fact he ultimately has a huge change of heart once he realizes his friend George is in love with a trans woman.

The boundary-breaking film is a bit reminiscent of Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette in the way love bubbles up half an hour into the movie amidst themes of violent tensions in underrepresented subcultures. Only instead of a gay romance amid Pakistani-British relations (as in Frears’ acclaimed film), it’s a trans love story in the middle of a prison drama. And fortunately, despite the fact it’s set the mid-’80s, love is colorblind in this tale.

With a diverse cast, Shelton has a little something to say about how the prison’s white powerful men at the top, literally, are watching down on the boxing ring, bragging how they are becoming enriched by George’s success in the sport. George ultimately does his best to put his legendary status in the ring to good use, yet his efforts are thwarted.

Shelton does not pull any punches: she has crafted a gritty world replete with assault and prison murders. Her scenes are brimming with context and conflicts in the background that add to the realism.

A couple of riveting subplots heighten the tension, revealing how a child predator in their midst meets a unique and grisly fate. And when a trans inmate starts getting sexually assaulted, another convict intervenes, imposing shame on the culprits and showing compassion for the victim.

The movie clicks along at a relatively swift pacing and well-staged action sequences that don’t stall the story, but actually contribute to the drama instead of stretching it thin. Yet in the final act, there is a bit of a sputter as the storyline heads toward a resolution. The film’s final gut-wrenching scenes reinforce the fact this is ultimately a love story, not a drama about boxing matches or even about the prison riot that ensues. It’s the story of two people who love each other, despite all their circumstances.

Shelton skillfully balances the sensitivity of Crystal’s world with the ferocity and violence of George’s. And while a few moments do not ring entirely true, or the acting hits a false note, this imperfect independent film is still a perfect movie for audiences of widely different backgrounds.

Heart, Baby! ultimately features far more interesting characters than a lot of last year’s studio blockbusters — plus it has a heck of a lot more heart. If you have closed-minded relatives, this prison boxing drama with a surprise love story may be a good selection if you’re hoping to open their minds.

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