“And since they wanna pay attention, I’ma bill it on ‘em” (Young M.A)2: Round 1
Fight films hit different for fighters. The difference stems from our practiced appreciation of combat sports’ athleticism, and it comes, as well, from the life experiences that have us choosing sweat-pooled surfaces and cages as comfort. What we tend to learn in life and on fight mats makes us intimate with the practices of bloody art-making that build champions, the punches—delivered by words or fists—that are simply sucker, and the exact shapes that fear takes when it morphs into the fight.
A fighter-protagonist’s flight from the ring or the cage or the mat and the relationships and circumstances that inspire this character’s comeback affect practitioners of combat sports in particular ways. Often, these iconic elements of fight film narratives, along with others like the overwhelming physical and mental challenges that their protagonists’ training requires, strike fighters squarely on their own still-open wounds or rawest nerves. For example, I am almost certain that nobody felt Jake LaMotta’s pain like my father did, that nobody hates Frankie Dunn more than my brother for matching Maggie Fitzgerald with the Blue Bear, and I know no one will ever fully grasp my joy at seeing Diana Guzman box her own father to the floor of their apartment kitchen. As fighters we watch for the ethics and the affect, deciphering them through the specific lenses we’ve trained on the narrative. We regularly take quite different things from seeing the same patterns of limb movement, the same modulations of power, the same dance, the same “sweet science” and the same “drowning… then swimming” that are choreographed to climax with a head bouncing off canvas or a hand desperately tapping out.3
Though we share an informed and invested focus on these elements of fight films, fighters’ distinct social positions compel us to decode them in specific ways. Women who fight are often frustrated that self-defense and vengeance are arguably the only contexts wherein our desired, practiced, and performed relationships to violence are “justified.” Our embrace of certain images of violence and our commitments to learning to execute it outside the discourses or circumstances of our own “protection” often compel “concerns,” criticisms—even ire and repulsion—on the part of some feminists and misogynists alike. Because and despite of this overdetermined terrain in which we are permitted a deliberate proximity to violence, I look to see women who fight differently. I have deep respect for self-defense training, and I know its many values firsthand; but I want to engage and produce radically other imaginaries of violence in relationship to gender. I want narratives that do not start with the question of women’s physical survival or bodily reclamation, post-denigration. I want stories that cast us in the light, and in our chosen practice, of conjoining with force.
History shapes the context in which women come to the question and possibility of this conjoining. But the conjoining also holds out the possibility of severing from History. It can break those analytical engagements with History that assert a too-tight relationship, a proprietary relationship, between men, masculinity, and violence.
Halle Berry’s Bruised, released in November 2021, is a fight film that I waited for and relished for how it offered (at least some of) the severings that I seek. 4 The film compels its audiences to look for the historical context and meaning of how its main character and its narrative execute forces that are social and political, even as these forces may appear to be individual and motivated by individual trauma. Close reading the film requires an unsettling of individualism itself, a disruption of ideas of violence as reactive, reiterative, confined to the realm of the personal. To viewers and fighters who seek out these breaks with common moves in narratives of trauma, these disruptions become clear and urgent as the centrality of the racialized and gendered experience that shapes the film’s story lines emerges.5
In Berry’s reflections on Bruised, she offers that the film is about a much larger struggle than that of an individual returning to the MMA cage after devasting defeat. Instead, it is about racialized and gendered “[inter]generational trauma” for Black women, trauma that is — by its historical and ongoing material nature —definitionally unsettled.6 The film gives us an important opportunity to examinine some of trauma’s historical, systemic, collective properties. It helps us see things that queer women of color survivors and fighters can never not recognize: the radical experiential and targeted specificity of certain violent events and the unpictured, if not undiscovered terrains on which reckonings and liberatory ruptures might occur. The film also crucially screens the particular challenges to narrativization and closure that attend racialized and gendered trauma.7
“Huh? I wasn’t welcomed, I imposed…” (Young M.A)8: Round 2
Bruised begins with the main character, Jackie Justice, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) mixed martial arts (MMA) star, cleaning a wealthy family’s toilet and ends with her having made a successful “comeback” as both a fighter and mother who has struggled to reconnect with her 6-year-old son, Manny, some time after she left her home with him and his father. Importantly, but for reasons that remain a mystery to viewers, this leaving coincided with Jackie’s retirement from fighting. One evening, as Jackie is considering returning to the MMA cage at the abusive urging of her boyfriend and former fight manager, Desi, her mother Angel drops Manny at her front porch. Angel tells Jackie that Manny’s father is dead, that Manny doesn’t speak anymore, and that Jackie must now care for him. The battles that Jackie fights from this point until the end of the film span her personal and familial relationships, as well as her physical re-training, as she must get emotionally and athletically prepared to fight for a living, to say nothing of fighting for a different life. The support she finds in her trainer-turned-lover, a woman named Bobbi, is key to the transformations that land her on a new path, even as the film’s ending renders their future together uncertain.
The above, cursory description of Bruised’s plot obviously cannot capture what I anticipated as I waited many months for the film’s release or what moved me to write about it after watching it. Far in advance of the film’s debut, I’d carved space in my work, relationships, and fight training for this essay. My experiences and desires, my theoretical and political stakes, motored my interest in the film and now compel my work to insist that queer women of color contemplate the radical potential of us screening, viewing, embodying, and executing violence. To apprehend this radical potential, we must look to theories of transformative justice that can confront, simultaneously, the historical materialities and the unnamed, even (thus far) shapeless possibilities of violence. Toward this end, we can generatively place Jackie Justice’s experiences alongside Denise Ferreira da Silva’s meditations on “Radical Praxis or Knowing (at) the Limits of Justice.” With this pairing, we train our would-be critical feminist visions on some unexplored, if not profoundly misunderstood “treasures.” Ferreira da Silva asks:
How are we to unsettle [the] neat assemblage of the theatre of difference, and its stages of Freedom and Necessity? I think it requires a return to The Thing – that is, to Hegel’s ‘object of no value.’ I cannot even begin to describe the treasures The Thing hides. Let me just say that The Thing hosts the possibility of violence, of that which threatens to undo, because as a mediator, it necessarily unsettles the limits of justice.9
To drastically simplify the theoretical complexity of Ferreira da Silva’s observations: the theatre of difference “plays” many parts in constructing social value. It is the historical infrastructure of various hierarchies and their oppressive mechanics of othering. Any notions or executions of justice that cannot assemble beings in our imaginations or in our material worlds outside existing frameworks of Freedom, Necessity, and value inherited by histories of colonialism, slavery, capitalism, sex, gender, and race cannot approach radical praxis. Thus, it is through my chosen relationship to violence that I search for representations of The Thing, the “object of no value.” An important, ongoing outcome of my own practice of and with the radical potential of The Thing is that it manifests embodied transformation for me: this practice is a fight for justice that smothers the idea that physical violence belongs to men and/or masculinity. The rage of queer women of color and our imaginations, histories, and futures of practiced bloodletting belong to nothing and nobody beyond the possibilities of our bodies and beings becoming and unbecoming. Indeed, in alignment with Ferreira da Silva’s observations about the limits of justice as we know it and the promises of radical praxis, “I cannot even begin to describe the treasures The Thing hides.”
The Thing hides, as it is, the breaking of a dependence on outsourced, external targets and motivations for the blows it strikes. The Thing needs no face on which to land a shot; it is certainly fine—even beautiful from some external-to-the-encounter viewpoints—if the shot finds a (particular) face. Some material circumstances may overdetermine the resulting mutation, this twisting of the most “human” sign – the face – at the hand of The Thing’s smashing. But The Thing cares not at all about this face, its history, or History. The Thing is free in its self-becoming irrespective of what it breaks; its becoming is dependent only on merging with/as its instruments. As a case in point, I produce and reproduce as easily and sensuously with a bag of sand as I do with ribs that would shatter on the other end of a left hook. The Thing is the hook, the shatter.10
10Instead of an academic qualifying footnote here, a series of quick jabs: some to the face, most to the body. Poetics as pushes that literally back you up. To parry weak shots that aim for my feminisms or fling questions about “morality” where they have no relevance, to invite you to leave this cage with some key information if you cannot read on, and—especially—to slap off speculative readings of any one of my cuts in this piece, I give you a few seconds of me dropping my hands (while you still don’t catch me): I am a longtime student of boxing and a more recent student of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu whose fight-related injuries and vestibular disability have significantly affected my practice over the last several years; still, I train to fight every day. I am an inheritor of a family and community legacy of decorated boxers, a survivor of childhood poverty and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in youth and adulthood, and I am a scholar of race, visual culture, gendered violence, and trauma’s representations. The consistent treatment of my CPTSD (Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) tops 12 years. I’ve read all the books, and my body has kept the score (see van der Kolk). I have seen every English-language fight film of which I’m aware, many times over. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that too few of them let women play with The Thing. In this essay, in this fight, these facts are not gifts of self-revelation, occasions for sympathy, or utterances about me that should ever easily transfer to readers’ mouths or keyboards. They mean for you to stop and wonder. They convey what Baby Tate advises in her brilliant contribution to the all-female rap artist compilation that makes up Bruised’s soundtrack—that unless you are prepared to meet on all the terrains mapped out here, “Don’t you ever, ever come for me.”11
“And my life is a movie, only Cardi could direct it” (Cardi B)12: Round 3
If Blake Lively had not passed on the starring role in Bruised and had Halle Berry not taken it on, the film would have depicted the struggles and triumphs of a “20-something, Irish Catholic woman.”13 With Berry at the center, however, Bruised’s narrative and its visions, its fight, had to change in myriad, fundamental ways. As she observed, once the focus shifted “to a middle-aged Black woman. . .right away, it would have to be set in a whole new world.”14
Eventually, Berry risked her directorial debut on Bruised, as well, explaining, “I realized that the only thing that was stopping me was my own fear and that I should just get out of my own way” and “do it.”15 In addition to these new performances and roles, Berry collaborated with rap artist Cardi B to co-executive produce the “first all-female hip-hop soundtrack to a major film.”16 The soundtrack’s consistent vibe is fierce self-knowledge and hard earned combat/life skills that command their addressees (mostly “bitches”) to back up, lest the beautifully brutal lyrical threats of humiliation, annihilation, and the truth about their weaknesses relative to the songs’ protagonists manifest materially. These are fighting words, the phonic poetics of women who came together to battle. They theorize and perform their distance from any individual or collective delusion that what is behind their bars can be known, seen, or matched. City Girls’ track “Scared” thus fittingly jabs, “Why these silver spoon bitches acting all hood?”17
Of her painful but passionate inspiration for making a fight film that centered a particular “female gaze,” Berry said: “You think back to slavery. Women, Black women had to watch their children ripped away from them and sold off. That’s traumatizing to the mother and that’s traumatizing to the child.” Berry’s story goes on to trace the inheritances of this structural trauma. For instance, she grants sympathy to Jackie’s mother, Angel. Angel’s support of her daughter is inconsistent, and when Jackie reveals, as an adult, that Angel’s brother and Angel’s boyfriends raped her repeatedly when she was young, Angel calls her daughter a liar. Berry says: “So that’s the story I was telling with Jackie and her mother, Angel story. Angel wasn’t a bad person. She was just traumatized from her mother, who was traumatized by her mother.”18 Berry’s language here is very general and tends to tip the balance of “blame” for the named violence toward a maternal inheritance, despite the specifically gendered, sexualized terror that Jackie’s character experiences at the hands of male family members when she was young. At the same time, Berry’s naming and characterization of Angel, as someone who “saves” or “watches over” (like an angel) ultimately locates trauma’s origins, manifestations, and repercussions in spaces of historical and ongoing complexity. This complexity is structured by personal negotiations of involuntarily inherited structures of slavery and racism on the part of an entire community, making judgments of “good” vs. “bad” mothering suspect, themselves.
“They’ll tell you everything ‘bout me but the grind” (Cardi B)19: Round 4
To watch Bruised is to witness a lived negotiation of racialized and gendered traumatic experience, one that is nonlinear and temporally singular. Jackie negotiates profound insecurities and fear throughout the film as she becomes a single mother and returns to professional fighting. She guards her son Manny against her boyfriend’s threats of violence, getting between them and telling Manny, “I’m Big and you’re Little. And Big protects Little,” rescripting the many childhood moments when she was not similarly protected. While she cares for Manny, she trains under Bobbi Buddhakan, played by Sheila Atim, who initially doubts Jackie’s potential but then comes to recognize and nurture it with profound understanding and kindness. Bobbi eventually opens her home to Jackie and Manny. Jackie’s relationship with Bobbi marks the first moment (that viewers know about) in her life where her safety is not under threat, where she has companionship, the space for self-reflection, and even rest.
On the eve of the fight, Jackie tells Bobbi that although she’s the “most beautiful” person she’s ever known, she needs to figure out her life and face her challenges alone. Viewers cannot know whether Jackie’s decision is a move toward a new “self-sufficiency” or what some might term a post-traumatic flight response. Either way, severing this relationship means that Jackie battles Lucia “Lady Killer” Chavez in the octagon without Bobbi in her corner. She makes it through all five rounds, executing powerful ground work and a choke that almost wins her the match and that definitively wins her the crowd. In the final scene, Jackie retrieves Manny from Angel’s home, and he speaks his first words to her as she ties his shoe: “Thank you, Big.” Both of their expressions of love and connection are wondrous, deeply touching. And still, they have no idea where they’re headed, and they’ve only begun to exchange words. This unsettledness and uncertainty don’t shake Jackie, however. Perhaps this is because she now grants herself a thus far elusive “justice”—a peace with uncertainty, a reconciliation of fear with the fight, a faith in The Thing. This uncertainty is radically disruptive of fight film viewer’s expectations, as these productions usually portend their protagonist’s reckoning with some certain outcome and point them in a relatively discernible direction. They have either won or lost their final fights, won or lost their matches with their personal demons, and they are either set up for a rematch, poised to face a different opponent, or to retire. All we know at the end of Bruised is that Jackie fought and lost and won at the same time. She fought, and she fights. Not at all insignificant to Jackie’s ongoing fight conjoined with her ongoing uncertainty is Halle Berry’s observation that the film is about a much larger struggle than that of an individual returning to the MMA cage after devasting defeat; again, it is about racialized and gendered “[inter]generational trauma” for Black women.20
Jackie Justice’s developing oneness with The Thing is evident in the song she chooses to lead her to the octagon to fight Lady Killer. Its refrain is “Never been a scared bitch,” but the title of the song is “Scared.”21 We miss this critical, symbolic interruption of teleologies of trauma and its afterlives, including simplistic notions of “healing,” if we miss what the film holds and disrupts,both by turns and occasionally, all at once. Ferreira da Silva’s meditations on Necessity, Freedom, and “knowing (at) the limits of justice” help us understand both Berry’s and Justice’s perspectives on what it means to be shaped in terror, scarred by abandonment, and mortified at the thought of failure. At the same time, this “knowing (at) the limits of justice” is knowing that despite, because of, and especially beyond this terror, abandonment, and mortification, there is The Thing. The Thing appears and takes over as an embodied execution of violence that is not stuckness or repetition, not an inversion of abusive masculinity, not a mirage of agency, but a material manifestation of a breaking: an explosion of structures that shape bodies, practices of embodiment, and the roles that violent histories have assigned to them.
“Never scared in the deep, all the sharks come with me” (Saweetie)22: Round 5
It is no accident that Berry engaged her own personal and communal histories of trauma through a film about a woman who fights. The possibilities laid out by this film and by women who fight are about communal and self-constructions and reconstructions. They refuse othering, oppositional scripting, and responsive, reactive frameworks altogether; they disregard what individuals or groups think they see when they witness a woman pound a bag or a body. The promises of violence in which I’m interested become through the offensive fueling, expulsion, performance, and creation of more than what language and History has let us be or made for us. Such possibilities are about “pre-posed excess – that is, the violence that is desire itself and the desire that is violence, that is not subjected to the rules of colonial and patriarchal (re)production.”23
The gift of being known to friends and loved ones for the possibilities I imagine and enact through my fight training and my engagement with visual cultures of violence is that they see me and know what I wish to see.24 They intuit what is not always a fully articulated vision of justice and social transformation in the context of practicing for consensual combat. I take real pleasure in knowing the violent power in my left body shots, as much pleasure as I do in witnessing women of color enacting certain kinds of violence in cultural texts. I relish unfamiliar arcs of blood spurts in these narratives. I smile at apparently inexplicable motives and unexpected targets because I have faith in the logics thus far unrevealed in the relationship between historical violence and the liberatory reconstruction of its forms. I celebrate the heavy breathing, the injuries endured, and the struts after the levelings.
Training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I’ve often heard the contested statistic that 90% of street fights end up on the ground if they’re not finished within the first few seconds. The veracity of this could not be less important to me. Ground skills are absolutely essential to being able to fight where the fight ultimately matters, where the stakes of telling your truth and locking the lies of oppressive structures precisely at their joints far outweigh the risk of your “brutality.” It was always there, really—History, or in other words, their relative and manufactured civility. Having been “drowned, over and over, and learning to swim” in oceans of discursive and material violence constitutes an invaluable intimacy with this knowledge and a key channel of beloved connection with The Thing. The Thing took this essay immediately to the ground, to the black asphalt of my childhood neighborhood streets—hard, rocky, dangerous—with what felt like, what indeed was and remains all the room in the world to bust heads, break limbs, dislocate joints, and to suffer these same things. I did this because sometimes the risks pay off and the chokes hold.
Ruby C. Tapia is a prison abolitionist scholar and activist. She theorizes, writes, and teaches about race, gender, violence, and the visualities of terror and trauma.
Raeden Tapia-Stevens is a multi-media creative artist completing degrees in Media Arts + Practice and Music Industry at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
2 Title Quotation: Young M.A, “No Mercy (Intro)Title quotation: City Girls, “Scared,” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021. Round 1 Quotation: Young M.A, “No Mercy (Intro),” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021.
3 The phrase the “sweet science of bruising” was first used by Pierce Egan, an English writer and sports journalist working in the early 19th century on a series of articles about boxing. His coining of the term “sweet science” was revived in pieces about the sport written by New Journalist A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker in the 1950s. “Liebling’s writings established the ‘sweet science’ of these encounters as an invitation to perceive a certain sophistication in boxing that goes beyond its brutal appearance,” Beauchez, Jérôme, et Peter Hamilton. “The “Sweet Science” of Bruising: Boxing as a Paradigm of the Sociology of Domination”, Revue française de sociologie, vol. 58, no. 1, 2017, 97. Playwright and screenwriter Joy Wilkinson wrote the play The Sweet Science of Bruising, which centers four women in London in 1869 who box in the underground scene. London: Nick Hern Books, 2019. My mention of “drowning…then swimming” refers to Sam Harris’ article about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on “The Pleasures of Drowning”: “To train in BJJ is to continually drown – or, rather, to be drowned, in sudden and ingenuous ways – and to be taught, again and again, to swim.” https://mmalife.com/sam-harris-on-jiu-jitsu-the-pleasure-of-drowning/, accessed January 11, 2022.
4 Bruised, Directed by Halle Berry, Netflix, 2021.
5 For a discussion of community-focused self-defense movements that explicitly tied political transformation and liberation to the inclusive and collective practice of martial arts, see Maryam Aziz, “They Punched Black: Martial Arts, Black Arts, and Sports in the Urban North and West, 1968-1979,” The Journal of African American History (Spring 2021), 304-327.
6 Mark Olsen and Asal Ehsanipour, “How Halle Berry Channeled Her Childhood Trauma in Directorial Debut, ‘Bruised,’” The Envelope, The Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2021-12-21/halle-berry-netflix-bruised-envelope-podcast-interview, accessed December 30, 2021.
7 For just two of many examples, see Laverne D. Marks, “Trauma and Incarceration: Historical Relevance and Present-Day Significance for African American Women,” 312-333 and Shelley A. Wiechelt, Jan Grycynski, and Kerry Hawk Leonard, “Cultural and Historical Trauma Among Native Americans,” 167-205 in Trauma: Contemporary Directions in Trauma Theory, Research, and Practice. Eds. Shoshana Ringel and Jerrold R. Brandell (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).
8 Young M.A, “No Mercy (Intro),” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021.
9 Denise Ferreira da Silva, “Radical Praxis or Knowing (at) the Limits of Justice,” At the Limits of Justice: Women of Colour on Terror. Eds. Suvendrini Perera and Sherene Razack (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 529.
11 Baby Tate, “Dungarees,” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021.
12 Cardi B, “Bet,” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021.
13 Olsen and Ehsanipour, “How Halle Berry Channeled”
16 Halle Berry’s Film ‘Bruised’ Will Feature The First All-Female Hip-Hop Soundtrack,” Adrian Spinelli, Uproxx, November 3, 2021. https://uproxx.com/music/halle-berry-bruise-all-female-hip-hop-soundtrack/, accessed December 30, 2021.
17 City Girls, “Scared,” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021.
18 Olsen and Ehsanipour, “How Halle Berry Channeled”
19 Cardi B, “Bet,” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021.
20 Olsen and Ehsanipour, “How Halle Berry Channeled”
21 City Girls, “Scared,” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021.
22 Saweetie, “Attitude,” Bruised (Soundtrack from and Inspired by the Netflix Film), Warner Records Inc./BPG, 2021.
23 Ferreira da Silva, 532-533.
24 In the form of support for me completing this essay, these gifts came especially from conversations with one of my brothers, Andy Rivera, and the joy that my daughters, Raeden and Niya, expressed as they watched me craft it. Raeden also designed the introductory graphic, having come to understand The Thing with and alongside me, even before the time of this essay. Abigail Bigham and Jason De León offered literal and generous space for me to write this, and Deirdre de la Cruz was the first colleague to say she was standing by for it. In my corner at every stage was my friend and colleague, Reginald Jackson, whose feedback helped me connect my words to my power. John Drabinski generously reflected my stakes to me at a crucial moment, confirming (with citations!) that I’d indeed said what I meant. And always present when I’m writing toward myself are Airea Dee Matthews, David Coyoca, Lisa Marie Cacho, Megan Sweeney, and Rafe Neis. They bless me with their love, insights, reflections, and visions, and I am ever grateful.