Hands of Stone: The Humanity of Roberto Duran & Panamanian Anti-Imperial Politics
By Rudy Mondragon
Hands of Stone is a movie that should have been made a long time ago. It is an important biographical film about Panamanian professional boxer, Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez), directed and written by Jonathan Jakubowicz. What is significant about the film is that it situates Duran as the protagonist. It is rooted within Panama’s political climate and United States manifest destiny imperialism of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, which allows for the unveiling of Duran’s complex humanity.
The last film that shed light on the life of Duran was ESPN’s No Más documentary, which actually focused on Sugar Ray Leonard. The film explored Duran and Leonard’s heated rivalry, seeking the truth behind Duran’s infamous “quitting” in the 8th round of their 1980 rematch. In the end, the documentary more so served as a healing process for Leonard, who felt he never got his due credit for beating Duran in their rematch.
Hands of Stone is all about Duran, starting in 1971 when he defeated Benny Huertas at the Madison Square Garden. This was a turning point in Duran’s career as he first met Hall of Fame boxing trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro). The film ends with Duran beating Davey Moore for the World Boxing Association Super Welterweight title in 1983. Although the film does not mention it, Duran would eventually go on to be regarded as one of the best lightweights of all time.
The flashbacks in the film are important because they take us back to Duran’s formative childhood. Through them we are able to better understand Duran’s upbringing and political development. The January 9, 1964 Martyrs’ Day Riot for example, is shown as having a direct impact on Duran. At the time of the conflict, Duran was 12 years old. United States soldiers killed 21 Panamanians, mostly students, who resisted US occupation and protested over sovereignty of the Panama Canal. Not only did Duran grow up poor, but he also had a first hand account of the harsh realities of US manifest destiny and geopolitical imperialism in Panama.
The film also captures heartfelt scenes that illuminate Panamanian moral victories over US power. This is what makes Hands of Stone a politically charged sports film rather than just a watered down movie about a sport. In one scene, Duran yells at a US officer, “You in jail!” With this, Duran was expressing his awareness of the affects of the mental and physical colonization that was taking place in his homeland. In calling out their false sense of power, the future world champion was signaling the need for US military officers to liberate themselves from being used as imperial tools for a greedy, money hungry US government.
The rivalry between Duran and Leonard is more than just sport. It symbolized an opportunity for Panamanian’s to resist US power and colonialism. Duran’s hate for Leonard stemmed from his political disgust with US foreign policy, occupation, and control of the Panama Canal. In order to achieve a victory over the US, Duran would need to beat their idol: The Golden Boy, Sugar Ray Leonard. This is the fascinating part of boxing. Boxing rivalries are not just about two fighters who are pinned against each other in the ring. Boxing rivalries embody nations, political ideologies, power, and enacted identities that are used to spark the emotions and alliances of fans.
Hands of Stone is victorious in providing the necessary context to see beyond the popular narrative that Duran was simply a savage beast that hated Leonard. Their rivalry was deeper than that. Duran, who once said “The poor are born happy,” was not at all thrilled to make acquaintances with the corporate friendly fighter that Leonard once was and represented. For Duran, Leonard was implicated in US power and domination. For a short moment, Duran’s victory over Leonard united the people of Panama because it symbolized a moral victory over the Yankees.
The cinematography beautifully captured and retold the story of what took place in their 1980 matches. At times I was not sure if I was watching a movie or actual fight footage from Duran and Leonard’s fights. From Duran shoving Leonard at the end of the 15th round, to Leonard unleashing two body shots at Duran as he walked away, the ring action truly showed why boxing is a like a sacred choreographed dance. The film showed the intimacy and personal relationship prizefighters share inside the squared circle. Fighters give each other their best efforts and as a result, they develop unique bonds inside and outside the ring.
Beyond the taunts, shoves, insults, and animosity, Hands of Stone demonstrates the unique and intimate relationship that Leonard and Duran will always share, a relationship that people outside of boxing can never fully understand.
*Originally posted September 19, 2016