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Minnesota Mean Takes on the Modern Roller Derby

Image: Courtesy Emergence Pictures.

“Minnesota Mean” makes for a clever title, subverting the commonplace “Minnesota Nice,” that veneer of pleasantry adopted by the Land-of-a-Thousand-Lakers that may be, depending on your perspective, either a genuine attempt to adopt a virtuous courtesy and benign tolerance to social situations or a superficial passive-aggressiveness that barely occludes a hidden agenda. Whichever is your take, the phrase “Minnesota Nice” surely does not apply to the All-Star team of the state’s RollerGirls, who call themselves instead, informally, the “Minnesota Mean.”

It’s a moniker that perfectly suits the personalities of the six core members of the team who are featured in Minnesota filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s new documentary by the same name, debuting this week on the festival circuit, beginning at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. For the course of a full season, Mikkelson and her cinematographer Jim Tittle followed the team competing in flat-track roller derby across the United States and hoping to win the “Hydra,” the sport’s top prize. It’s a professional sport played in medium-size cities in front of small crowds with little media attention, but the competitors are no less devoted to their sport than any professional athlete. “Minnesota Nice” won’t do in this rough-and-tumble sport.

Brickyard is the team’s co-captain and lead jammer—the skater who fights through the opposing blockers to earn her team’s points—and something of its elder statesperson. Devout in her training and candid in her interviews, she makes for an excellent guide to the sport and the team. She’s clearly the team’s conscience, setting an example for others with her devotion to fitness and unflagging optimism. At home, she’s fortunate to have a spouse who’s equally supportive of her and her team.

An athletic, red-haired young woman in sportwear stretches on a running track.
Brickyard, when not on the rink, can often be found training on the track. Image: Courtesy Emergence Pictures.

Brickyard’s co-captain majored in English literature in college, so she goes by Hurtrude Stein, which I’m sure Gertrude herself would have adored. (Not all modernists can lay claim to such a fame!) Shiver Me Kimbers has suffered multiple miscarriages during her career but soldiers on through the season regardless. Smoka Hontas and Diamond Rough provide brawn on the track but have their own life goals outside it. All the players go by pseudonyms on the official team rosters and in the documentary. These range from the puerile-but-puckish Tonya Sharting to the literate Whacks Poetic. Halluci’Jen, Polly Punchkin, Secondhand Smoke, and Shock Therapy round out the roster.

In many ways, Minnesota Mean resembles your very typical behind-the-scenes sports documentary. Direct-address interviews and voice-over narration guide the viewer through the season, providing both an expository primer for the novices and a sense of the team’s and its individuals’ goals. Lower-thirds graphics provide a guide to the team’s roster and each new locale. Footage from the competitions is captured in a mix of wide-angle long-shot and long-lens close up, the latter often in slow motion, emphasizing the grace and grit of the sport, while PA announcers’ voices bark out key shifts in momentum and results from the scoreboard.

The Minnesota Mean Roller Derby team in action.
Image: Courtesy Emergence Pictures.

Behind the scenes, each featured team member speaks to her own battles, many of which have to do with settling into an identity that embraces the sport’s physicality. Roller Derby reached a complex height in popularity decades ago, when it was broadcast on national television but its predetermined outcomes and faux rivalries were scripted and its athletes sexualized for media display; increasing gimmicks like the figure-eight bank-tracked rink, designed to heighten contact even at the risk of the players’ safety, lasted only a little while before the sport fell back into its comfortable obscurity. Today, the sport is contested on a flat track and its competitions are wholly on the up-and-up: the Minnesota team and their rivals are in it not for the titillation of the past but for their own individual and collective pride.

Pride and honor will have to do. There’s little money in the sport, and scenes of the team members crowded in a single tiny dressing room, an auditorium hallway, or even sharing an impromptu motel-room ice bath or takeout pizza party demonstrate that it’s a sport played for love and passion. It’s one that is unflaggingly combative, played with scant padding and sharp elbows as blockers and pivots jockey constantly for the physical space needed for jammers to pass through and score points. Team members need to trust each other and themselves to do the job.

Members of the team huddle in a hallway.
Photo: courtesy Emergence Productions.

Midway through Minnesota Mean, that trust is called into question when a key player’s injury necessitates a replacement, especially if the team is to compete for the Hydra. The team members, women with diverse, determined identities from all walks of life, have to make adjustments on the fly, in some cases having to balance their own needs with those of the group. MIkkelson’s deft direction keeps the documentary off the soapbox while still communicating its key themes of female strength, body positivity, and self-determination, even in the face of challenge.

The action onscreen took place during the 2017 season, and by now, some of the women featured onscreen are retired from the sport, segueing into the kinds of careers and identities they’d imagined all along. Some have transitioned from playing to coaching. And others are still on the roster. I’m reminded that 2017 was a year when National Geographic featured a young transgender woman on its cover for a feature entitled “Gender Revolution.” Today, dozens of state legislatures are ginning up a flurry of anti-trans laws, some they claim are designed to “protect” young women, especially athletes. It’s both tragic and ironic: I’ll wager none of them fought so much as a tiddlywink for the rights of female athletes before hopping on their current hobby horse.

Given the fraught tensions with which trans rights intersect with women’s sports today, it’s especially refreshing to see a team like the “Minnesota Mean” get right down to brass tacks. Can the athlete do the job, break through the pack, take the lead, earn the points? Fit in with the girls? Hell, yes. These women do the sport damn proud.

The film features a soundtrack with music from singer-songwriter-essayist Dessa, whose subtle hip-hop provides just the right beat for the story’s upbeat attitude. Director-writer Mikkelson, whose Finding Her Beat is currently continuing a strong festival run, has a long resume of LGBTQ+ storytelling and a clear eye for the team’s emerging talents and themes. Making a documentary like this—trying to capture a complex, fast-moving sport taking place on a tiny track with players scrambling about, following the group from Minneapolis to Seattle to Omaha and elsewhere for competitions, all on a miniscule budget and with a skeleton crew, is no easy task. Many, in fact, have failed, but it’s to Mikkelson’s credit to see this project through to its fruition and onto festival screens.

An Emergence Pictures production, Minnesota Mean makes its world premiere this month at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on April 15, 2023, followed by the Florida Film Festival on April 17 and Sunscreen Film Festival on April 29, among others.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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