Steelers (2020) Review
by Julie Toft Carlsen
Steelers tells the story of the world’s first gay rugby team, the Kings Cross Steelers, as they compete for The Bingham Cup, the world gay rugby tournament. This is the feature documentary debut of Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, a player on the team who got injured shortly before the tournament and was unable to compete himself.
The film goes through the history of the Steelers: the prejudice the team had originally faced when trying to plan matches against non-gay rugby teams and the general abuse players had suffered on and off the pitch before they joined the gay rugby league.
Courtesy: Republic Film Distribution
The importance of queer-owned spaces is evident in the rapidly growing number of gay rugby teams that followed the Steelers, and the increasing acceptance and respect of these teams from non-gay rugby clubs. However, the true value of teams like the Steelers comes across in the individual stories of some of the players and their head coach, Nic Evans.
These deeply personal stories are the true heart of the film. The vulnerability displayed in interviews is probably a credit to Ashton-Atkinson, who was able to create these intimate interviews due to his personal connection with the subjects.
The players talk openly about their experiences of harassment, fear, mental health issues, and performing as drag queens. The drag performances are an unexpected addition to a documentary about a rugby team, but bring one of the most joyful and celebratory sequences of the film.
It also highlights the importance of confronting the culture of toxic masculinity in rugby. For some of the players, the Steelers are a chance to play rugby without the fear of social rejection. For others, it’s also a chance to combine the masculine and feminine sides of their personality.
Leading the group is head coach, Nic. A former professional rugby player herself, she now speaks of her role in the Steelers with great passion and personal importance. The Steelers became her chance to continue working with rugby after retiring from her professional career, but were also a chance for her to reconcile her love for the sport and her inner conflicts of self-identity as a gay woman and professional athlete, and the misogyny she has faced in a male-dominated sport.
This reconciliation between self-identity and the pre-conceived notions of others is what makes the Kings Cross Steelers, and other gay sports clubs like it, so very important. Steelers captures these stories with so much heart, and though it’s a little rough around the edges, this directorial debut is one of the best documentaries I have seen in years.