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.
Gbenga Akinnagbe stars as George in 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.
Director dishes on Heart, Baby!
Heart, Baby! director Angela Shelton. Courtesy photo.
Angela Shelton is not your typical Hollywood director. She doesn’t live in Hollywood or Silverlake, but rather, she’s a wife and mother of three in a small town back East.
So naturally, her tearjerker feature Heart, Baby! is not your typical Hollywood film either. Despite it being a trans love story set in prison, it’s inclined to appeal to conservative audiences.
The film’s popularity among conservatives makes it one of the best allies to today’s LGBTQ rights movement, as the movie will melt the hearts of most the cold souls out there who still haven’t grasped that “love is love.”
Based on real-life events, Heart Baby! focuses on a trans-identified Christian inmate named Crystal, who quotes scripture in support of LGBTQ rights and challenges the self-righteousness of others with her own fiery brand of vim and verve – a performance that Shelton said has subsequently inspired many LGBTQ viewers to return to church.
The actor playing the role, Shawn-Caulin Young, is a friend of Shelton’s and co-produced the movie.
“I did audition trans actors,” Shelton says in defense of her controversial choice to cast a cisgender actor in the role. “There were none who were as good an actor as him … He was the best human to play that part.”
Another intriguing character in Shelton’s script is Andy aka Doc, who goes from rampant homophobe and transphobe to supportive, gay- and trans-friendly dude. In real life, Andy is the person who first told Shelton about this love story.
Shelton first met Andy years ago on the speaking circuit for her award-winning documentary Searching for Angela Shelton, which focused on healing from rape, incest and domestic violence. Andy had been lobbying for prison reform and, upon meeting, the two became instant friends.
“Whenever you’re around Andy he tells you prison stories. It just happens,” she recalled. “And me and husband were about to get married and he said, ‘I’ll tell you a love story,’” she intoned, mimicking his baritone Southern drawl. “He told us the story of George and Crystal and I lost my mind. I started crying. I was bawling. My husband’s crying, the dogs are crying.”
Instantly moved by the story, and believing George to be dead, Shelton sought the rights to this enchanting prison story. After hiring a private eye to track down George’s death certificate and the details of what happened to him, she said they discovered that George was most definitely alive.
Jackson Rathbone stars as Andy, aka Doc, in Heart, Baby! Courtesy photo.
“Even Andy thought he was dead,” she said, “and the movie is what brought them back together.”
One day Andy told her, “I’ve found more information on George,” she recalled. To which she replied, “Oh no, when did he die?” That’s when Andy dropped the bomb, “He’s alive, I’m going to pick him up right now!”
Shelton then secured the rights to his story just days before shooting began –a wild way for film development to unfold.
The filmmaker also turned to other former inmates to help authenticate details of her film, pointing out how few options exist for “returning citizens” who are often more pejoratively known as “ex-cons.”
“I wanted to show a true slice of life in this moment in 1984 in prison, as if we’re looking through the window as the audience and peeking in,” she said. “I met more honest good guys inside than I ever have outside, especially in Hollywood,” Shelton said.
Ultimately, for Shelton, the bond between George and his friend Andy is the real emotional core of the story. Her personal connection to Andy may be one reason Shelton settled on him as such a relatable character.
“The foundation of that story for me is Andy, and how Andy hated Crystal and loved George,” she said. “And as a devout Catholic, for him to have a true ‘come-to-Jesus’ [moment], oh I cry just thinking about it.”
Told from the viewpoint of the straight white male character, Andy, the movie forces viewers to identify with him the most, Shelton says, to ease conservative viewers into the same awakening that Andy experiences.
“I wanted the audience to be very much like him … He has a total transformation just like every audience member does,” she said. “If they don’t know there’s a true love story, they’ll go.”
Among conservative groups in different cities that watched the movie, Shelton proclaimed, “Every single audience member changed their minds about the bathroom issue.”
The director hopes the film continues to attract more conservative audiences.
“They’ll have a true transformation. And they’ll come around just like Doc [Andy] did,” she said with optimism in her voice. “Their hearts will open to this world.”
For more information, visit heartbabythemovie.com.
Hans Pedersen is a freelance writer based in Phoenix