Most sports documentaries focus on The Big Game and linger on the final celebration, relishing the winning score as it blares from the scoreboard. Dean Kaneshiro’s Rise of the Wahine: Champions of Title IX isn’t about a single game or the winning score at the end of a season, but a much greater victory with a far-reaching legacy.
This documentary offers a rousing history lesson on the forming of the first Rainbow Wahine Volleyball team from University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, who challenged the sexism and inequality that plagued women’s sports. After the landmark Title IX legislation was signed into law on June 23, 1972, with the purpose of prohibiting discrimination based on sex in any education or federally funded program, the change in attitude wasn’t overnight, as the obstacles against the team continued to pile up. Not only would they be confronted with on-the-surface, unapologetic sexism, but also a lack of funding.
The central figure here is Dr. Donnis Thompson, the African-American athletic team director who fought for equal treatment and respect towards her players (a much-remembered quote from Thompson is “If it’s worth having, it’s worth having now“). Thompson, who developed the Rainbow Wahine Hui, was also the first female track and field coach and an advocate for social change.
Kaneshiro immediately establishes what Thompson was up against by opening his documentary with an alarmingly sexist 1936 “medical” quote. We later hear another “medical expert” from that era proclaim, regarding women in sports, “They can’t do this, because their reproductive systems can’t handle it.” While the impact of Title IX for the nation was enormous, the efforts of Thompson and her team provided an example that was covered by national news.
Another central figure here is the late Patsy Mink, the first Japanese-American woman to serve congress. Thompson aligned herself with Pa‘ia-born Mink and found other local and national figures, like Pat Saiki and Dr. You, who offered their support. Unguarded and highly engaging interviews with Patsy’s daughter Gwendolyn and former Rainbow Wahine team members round out the narrative.
Writer, director, and producer Kaneshiro has shaped a beautifully crafted documentary. The editing is a collage of well chosen artifacts, as archival material, new and old footage, and talking head interviews re-tell the story with immediacy. While the focus is on the efforts of University of Hawai‘i Manoa employees, this isn’t an extended promo for the university but an engrossing look at the hardships of battling social injustice.
There’s nothing Hollywood or inevitable about the victories these women achieved, a quality that keeps the documentary suspenseful, even if you know the outcome. Some surprise obstacles (like Patsy Mink’s thwarted opportunity to make a crucial vote) add to the indifference and ignorance the team fought against.
At the very least, Kaneshiro manages the seemingly impossible feat of making legislation exciting. A far greater achievement is how accomplished, thorough, and compelling his documentary is. The blending of old and recent news footage, exclusive interviews, and glossy reenactments (carefully and unobtrusively used sparingly to bridge certain segments) keeps the narrative coherent and involving. While this is easily the kind of documentary that could be aired proudly on ESPN, it’s polished and crowd-pleasing enough to play like gangbusters in a movie theater. The only element that left me underwhelmed is the narration by actress Sarah Wayne Callies, which is a little too silky-smooth for such a gritty story. If anything, the passionate recollections of those who were there are enough to carry the narrative.
As a celebration of those who pushed up against opposition and made a world of difference, Kaneshiro’s film is a valuable work, with a message of equality and respect that makes it as relevant as ever.
Rise of the Wahine: Champion of Title IX is playing at the McCoy Studio Theater, within the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, on Sunday, March 24 at 3pm.
Image courtesy MACC