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Reviewed by:
  • Redbelt (2008)
  • Stephen Swain
Redbelt (2008). Written and directed by David Mamet. Sony Pictures Classics. 99 mins.

David Mamet’s Redbelt is different from other mixed martial arts (MMA) movies to have hit the screens in recent years. While Redbelt uses MMA as a plot device, to say that the film is about MMA is like saying that another Mamet-penned effort, Glengarry Glen Ross, is about real estate sales. Instead, Redbelt is a film with something to say about spectacle, commercialization, and commodification. MMA is simply the lens through which Mamet filters those concepts. Of particular note is the way in which Redbelt presents the use, and appropriation, of history by spectacle.

Redbelt tells the story of Mike Terry (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) instructor in Los Angeles. A former military man who discovered BJJ whilst in Brazil, Terry has brought the fighting style home, along with his wife, who is his teacher’s daughter and sister to the Silva brothers, Ricardo and Bruno. The brothers have also come to Los Angeles and are looking to sell their form of BJJ to the masses, live on pay-per-view (PPV). While Ricardo will be headlining the PPV, they encourage Terry to participate on the undercard. Terry resists, as he is more concerned with the purity of the sport as a form of self-defense, and he looks down on the brothers’ attempts to spectacularize the BJJ as taught to them by their father, “The Professor.” Rather than utilize BJJ as a means of competition, Terry is more concerned with teaching people to defend themselves, to use BJJ as a means of defeating those who would do them harm.

An integral part of Terry’s training is the use of randomly determined handicaps during fights. Fighters choose one of three marbles, two black and one white, from a bowl. Choose a white marble, and you are given a pass. Choose a black marble, and you are given a handicap, which could be the restriction of a limb, or even a blindfold. For Terry, the training technique is used to encourage his students to understand that they must always be prepared to be at a disadvantage in any fight. The technique is part of Terry’s belief that BJJ should be used as a defensive fighting technique, rather than spectacular competition.

Terry’s techniques eventually fall into the hands of the Silva brothers and fight promoter Marty Brown, who use the handicap system as a means of boosting interest in the upcoming PPV. Unlike Terry, the Silvas and Brown incorporate the technique into the spectacular nature of the PPV, labeling it “an ancient Samurai training technique.” In this way, an invented “history” is used as a means of legitimizing and validating what would otherwise be only a gimmick designed to promote the PPV and increase buyrates.

This use of history to create legitimacy and the subsumption of history to the logic of spectacle is found all too often in contemporary mediasport. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1936) uses this technique to link the perceived ideals of ancient Olympia to the racial and political ideologies of the Nazi regime. Pierre de Coubertin’s model of the modern Olympics appealed to a mythical amateur ideal to support its own class-based restrictions on competition. The modern marathon is based on the legend of Pheidippides and his run [End Page 296] from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. The truth of the historical claims is not important. What matters is that an appeal is made to history in order to legitimize the spectacle.

Another example of the appropriation of history by spectacle is the use of The Professor, the patriarch of the Silva clan and the man who taught his version of BJJ to both his sons and Mike Terry. The Professor is brought to the PPV event and introduced to the audience in attendance and the (hopefully) millions watching at home, by the ring announcer. Here, the Professor is a signifier for the history of BJJ, and more importantly, the evolution of BJJ into contemporary MMA. His appearance at the event is framed as an endorsement of...


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pp. 296-297
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