by Richard Kuipers
Sports, social history and politics form a winning team in “Rise of the Wahine,” an informative and uplifting documentary about the U. of Hawaii’s Rainbow Wahine women’s volleyball team that emerged at the same time that landmark gender-equality laws were passed in the U.S. in 1972. Though it attempts to pack in a little too much information, this chronicle of underdogs who overcame daunting obstacles and emerged as rock star-like figures is lovingly made and never less than highly entertaining. World preemed at Hawaii, where it won the audience award for best doc, “Wahine” deserves further fest exposure and is well worth the attention of pubcasters, on-demand outlets and educational institutions.
A sports-themed docu that’s nicely crafted to appeal to non-sports fans as well, “Wahine” sets the scene with punchy archival footage of the team in action, which make a mockery of graphics from a 1936 edition of Scientific American magazine stating that women were not suited to anything more physically demanding than “light work.”
Much of the film is framed around the charismatic figure of Donnis Thompson (1933-2009), a Chicago-born African-American educator, administrator and coach whose long-term dedication was responsible for the Rainbow Wahine’s formation and official entry into competition in 1972. Brought to UH in 1961 to start the women’s track and field program, Thompson arrived at a time when female participation in organized sports was pitifully low and female collegiate coaches were virtually unheard of. Thompson’s early success stories at UH included Lacey O’Neal, a two-time Olympian who’s the first of many interviewees to remember Thompson as a visionary who inspired many young women to realize their potential both on and off the field.
The film neatly weaves its athletic and sociopolitical threads together through Thompson’s vital friendship and strategic alliance with Hawaiian politician Patsy Mink (1927-2002), the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress. Inspired to a significant degree by Thompson’s work, Mink ensured sports were included in Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act, a reform co-authored by Mink and passed into law in 1972. Though at this point the story bogs down a little with too much detail about how Title IX related to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the important message rings loud and clear that, as of 1972, all programs and activities receiving federal funding support could not discriminate on the basis of gender.
Having played a supporting role so far, volleyball takes centerstage with the Title IX-prompted appointment of Thompson as UH’s first Women’s Athletics Director in 1972. In the great tradition of sporting dramas about ragtag outfits punching way above their weight, former players including All-American star Beth McLachlin recall how this scrappy “midget team” adopted the defense-based style of play usually associated with Asian teams to overcome taller and more technically accomplished opposition.
Snappy editing draws punchy parallels between the Rainbow Wahine’s emergence as a team to be reckoned with and the miracles Thompson performed with a pitifully low budget, while being forced to operate from a dingy office beneath the campus swimming pool. Alongside terrific archival footage of the team notching one notable win after another, helmet-editor Dean Kaneshiro provides a detailed analysis of how the uncooperative nature of some male coaches and UH financial controllers provided the inspiration for Thompson’s most daring and spectacularly successful initiative.
Told by hard-nosed budget bosses that women’s sports could not justify increased funding because they were unable to attract a critical mass of paying customers, Thompson took the extremely risky step of inviting the star UCLA team to play the Rainbow Wahine at the 7,800-seater Blaisdell Arena. In the lead-up to the docu’s rousing emotional high point, it becomes clear that Thompson was actually the least worried of anyone. Going so far as to sell tickets door-to-door, Thompson secured a full house for a now-legendary match that turned the Rainbow Wahine into adored local heroines and changed forever how female sports were viewed and funded at UH. Most importantly, the flow-on effects of this famous event are contextualized within the larger framework of the feminist movement and political landscape of the times.
Just a tad heavy with voiceover narration in a few spots, “Rise of the Wahine” is elsewhere wonderfully well served by intelligent and high-spirited testimony from interviewees such as Bernice Sandler, known as the “Godmother of Title IX,” and Mink’s daughter Gwendolyn (Wendy), a noted author and scholar. While it’s very much a women’s tale, there are also excellent contributions from prominent coach Chris McLachlin, the husband of Beth McLachlin, and Dave Shoji, a former star player who’s been the hugely successful head coach of the Rainbow Wahine since 1975.
Well produced on a slender budget, “Wahine” is enhanced by Paulette Wooten’s peppy score and clean, crisp photography by multi-skilled helmer Kaneshiro. For the record, “wahine” is the Hawaiian word for “woman.”
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