The relationships that Black girls have with their fathers isn’t examined nearly enough. There are stories that center around absentee fathers, and the damage they do to their offspring. However, there are very few films about the heroic roles that Black fathers play in their daughters' lives from adolescence through womanhood. Set in Brooklyn’s notorious Brownsville neighborhood, writer/director Olivia Newman's First Match shines a spotlight on one young girl, Monique (portrayed by Elvire Emanuelle) who joins her high school wrestling team in a desperate attempt to win back the affection of her estranged father Darrel (portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Under the direction of her thoughtful coach (portrayed by Colman Domingo) Mo finds a different type of family. During the film's premiere at SXSW, I chatted with Newman and the cast about First Match and what the film means to them.
Newman’s arresting tale was born out of her the short film she made for her MFA thesis. At the time, she was examining the growing number of girls who were joining all-boys wrestling teams in high school. Her research led her from the picturesque buildings of Columbia University to the gritty streets of Brownsville.
“When I made the short film, I was really focused on just the experience of being a girl participating in a full-contact sport in a coed context," Newman recalled. “I was just looking for the best wrestler to be in the short, and this wrestler Nyasa, that I cast, happened to be from Brownsville. We formed a friendship in making the film, and we stayed in touch over the years. The story for the feature really just evolved out of our friendship and getting to know her and her friends and hearing their stories.”
When we meet Moe in First Match she’s donning a kool-aid red weave, and baring her long neon green nails like armor – her anger and pain radiating off of her. Newman’s idea for the character was inspired by a girl on Nyasa’s wrestling team. “She was this girl who was living in foster care, and I happened to be at a practice one afternoon where she was very angry and kind of snapping at people," Newman remembered. “It was a side of her I'd never seen. I learned from her coach that she had these grandparents that she had been hoping were going to adopt her but they decided not to. That was a moment that kicked me in the gut. I couldn't get her out of my head. She was really the character that motivated me to develop [the story] into a feature.”
For relative newcomer Elvire Emanuelle, becoming Mo meant going through a complete and utter transformation. “I had never done any kind of wrestling besides play fighting at home for fun," she laughed. "I learned to wrestle in five weeks with a trainer that Olivia introduced me to. I think all of us have a little bit of Mo in us. She plays tough, but on the inside, she's so full of empathy and compassion. The way Olivia wrote it was so beautiful, it really helped me to grasp her and tell her story.”
As much as the audience comes to care about Mo, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II also wanted to present a charismatic but broken father in his portrayal of Darrel. “The first thing I think we had to do was to care about him," Adul-Mateen explained. “I had to make sure he was a guy with a heart. He was a guy with a troubled past, but it was not because he was a bad person. I had to make sure he was a guy who had ambition, who had a desire to be a good father. He wants to restore his family and restore himself, but he's working within the resources that he has. My goal was always to make sure that he was a character who had a love for his daughter and who wanted to make sure that a strong relationship was there. I also knew that he was a young father as well. We get to see a guy who had a child very soon -- maybe even just on the cusp of graduating from high school. He's dealing with being a young father, feeling inadequate in a lot of ways, and still having shame."
Abdul-Mateen and Emanuelle also found time to make sure they bonded, not allowing the weight of the story itself nor the harshness of wrestling to seep into their performances as a father and daughter. “Myself and Elvire, we worked very closely to make sure that fun was first," Abdul-Mateen revealed. “It's a wrestling movie, there's a lot of physical contact, (but) we wanted to make sure that we could laugh and we could smile and things like that. We wanted the other moments in the film to be rooted in the hope and the desire for a joyous end. I think that was the goal, leaning into one another and trusting that everyone had each other's back.”
For Domingo, whose Coach Castille provides the steady presence that Mo is so desperately looking for, the role was so much about legacy and speaking to the next generation. “The moment I read Olivia's script, I felt it was so beautiful, and nuanced," Domingo revealed. “Her heart is so open and generous, and she's very interested in other people. I thought the journey of Mo was so phenomenal. I don't think I have seen a young woman on screen with such a complicated history and story and humor and ferocity, and I wanted to be a part of it in any way. All the young people in the cast, they all called me Coach. They called me Coach even when we were not filming. I'm grateful with all my heart, I love them.”
Shot in the heart of Bronzeville over twenty-two sticky hot July days – Newman knew that being on location would add to the authenticity of Mo’s journey. “I didn't know anything about Brownsville before I cast Nyasa for my short film," Newman explained. “I remember we wanted her to have a lot of red in her wardrobe and her mom looked at me like I was nuts because that's a gang color. I was immediately aware of how naïve I was. I also started researching Brownsville, and there are so many legends that have come out of the neighborhood. I just felt like what you read about Brownsville so much of what people hear about is, ‘Oh, it's the murder capital of New York.’ You hear so much about gangs and drugs, but there are families and people that love each other and it's beautiful. For me, it was important to shine a spotlight on that --those stories that we don't get to hear about and show the resilience and the love and the bond and family ties and all of that.”
Well before there was talk of inclusion riders, #MeToo, or Time’s Up, Newman was adamant about having a diverse and well-rounded cast and crew. For her efforts, her crew for First Match was comprised of 60% women, which included all of the department heads and key crew members. “There was a feeling of inclusion I think that was powerful to everyone, on set,” Domingo reflected. “I think it just really helped. That was the spirit that's led by Olivia. It is informed with every aspect of the script as well. It felt like we were doing our best work. It felt really intimate-- like we were part of the community as well. Most of my experiences up until that point, including my experiences in the theater— have been with women directors. Now we can use this film and use this example as a template or as a voice for the movement that's going on right now -- to show that women are making powerful films with strong characters. I'm really happy to be a part of that."
More than anything, working on First Match and bringing Moe’s joy, pain, and heartbreak to the big screen has shifted something in everyone who was involved in making the film. “I go into every meeting, thinking, 'Yeah, I can do anything," Newman declared. “It was my first feature and every day was like fighting a war. My Director of Photography and I would fall on each other at the end of every day because we could not believe we got every shot that we needed. It built my confidence because I went into this film feeling like the least experienced. Everyone else there had made features, the actors had been in movies and TV shows. I wanted to be surrounded by more experienced people because I learned from all of them and they gave me this incredible gift. I feel like I won the lottery.”
For Abdul-Mateen who has done everything from massive blockbusters to big-budget television shows, First Match was like a welcome home. “I’m currently looking for my next First Match," he revealed. "I've been playing a lot of guys that come from these whimsical, fantastical, magical worlds but with projects like First Match, you can find something about yourself you didn't know before and you can really challenge yourself to meet a 22-day deadline and really get close and intimate with the character. It's just a really amazing opportunity to go and to do something this that's true and that people can relate to. It’s really opened up my appetite to do more things that feel like this. I'm really excited to see where it's going to go from here."
More than just a project on his filmography, Domingo saw First Match as a gift he didn’t expect. “It's a blessing it really takes you back to the essentials," he expressed. “You're here to make a movie, but every single department took care of us in such enormous ways just by being kind and looking after us. I know we've done our best work, based on the energy that it was from the head down."
“I accept people for who they are rather than where they come from," Emanuelle added. “But I would say (First Match) really brought me all the details of what life would be like if you didn't have a father. It shed light on what it was like to have nothing and to fight to make a better life for yourself from a different perspective than I understood before. I really have an appreciation for that.”
First Match premiered at SXSW on March 12, 2018.
The film will debut on Netflix, Friday, March 30, 2018.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami