With films like Cocaine Cowboys, Limelight and The U, director Billy Corben has documented the lives of cavalier drug smugglers, unrepentant nightclub impresarios and swaggering college athletes – subjects who rose to power and, inevitably, fell from grace.
But his new film, Dawg Fight, is different. A documentary about the brutal backyard fights staged in the impoverished community of West Perrine, Florida, it is less about the rise to the top as it is the permanent social stasis that keeps people on the bottom. The fight footage is plentiful, gory and uniformly horrifying, yet this is actually a film about people, poverty and the push to succeed against all odds.
Corben, who resides in South Florida, began working on the project six years ago – during that time, two of the fighters featured in his film died – and struggled to find distribution. But today, Dawg Fight finally makes its debut on Netflix, and the director spoke to Rolling Stone about the men willing to risk it all in the ring, and why those who focus purely on the punching are missing the point.
Many of your films tend to focus on those on the fringes of society – drug dealers, iconoclastic football players, etc. Yet, to me, they all seem to be about the same thing: the pursuit of the American Dream. Do you agree?
The alternate American Dream is certainly a recurring theme in my docs, but the more I think about it, in terms of where we are in history, maybe these movies are about the death of the American Dream, and the kind of warped priorities and perverse incentives that have completely altered the perception and reality of the American Dream. Dawg Fight certainly feels that way. In Miami, there's a whole underground economy – the flea markets, the fight clubs, the gambling – that exists outside the realm of what we, as a society, understand. There are people making a living below the poverty level by doing things that aren't illegal, per se. That's the reality of where they come from. People who have seen the film have told me, "Shit, that doesn't even look like America, it looks like the Third World," and it is, to a degree. Miami-Dade has the second-highest income disparity in the country, we have the second-highest rate of food stamp usage in the country. The Florida of today is the America of tomorrow – it's a case study. You want to know what shit is going to go down in America over the next couple decades, just look at Miami: immigration, drugs, Medicare fraud, tax I.D. fraud, Ponzi schemes, mortgage fraud, sea-level rise – you name it, and it's already happened here.
So this isn't just a film about bare-knuckle brawls. It's about the environment that encourages them.
I'd say so. Recently, someone said to me, "Oh, the children. They're attending these fights" – because in the film, we use footage of kids sitting ringside, singing along to the more profane hip-hop verses that are being played in the backyard, shadowboxing with each other in the ring between fights – and this person was pearl clutching, talking about, "The cycle of violence in the inner city." This film is about fighting, but in a larger sense, it's about these poor black men who are trying to make a living and fight their way out of these circumstances. So to hear someone talk about "The cycle of violence," and to turn on the TV and see rich old white men going to war for money or oil, it becomes apparent that, when young black men are involved, it's an issue, but it's not when it's old, rich white dudes who send poor people to war for money.
We have a violent culture; it's not indigenous to young black men. The real cycle of violence is like this: Baltimore is the seventh most-dangerous city in America, so they need a proactive police force; but because they have a proactive police force, they also have the seventh most-dangerous city in America. There's no answer other than more policing, or locking human beings in cages, or killing them in the streets extrajudicially, without judges or juries. That's our answer in this country, we're meeting violence with violence. And that, to me, is the conversation I want to have after Dawg Fight – that America is headed towards Thunderdome.
Yet there's a scene in the film where police show up at one of the fights, but let it continue…
Well, that's how it used to work – that was in, like, 2009. A lot has changed since then, and not for the better. Back then, it was community policing at its finest. The police would take stock of the neighborhood, go, "The streets are quiet, there's no crime," and what was happening? Dada was having an event. And that was a calculation on their part – "We know that, for a few hours on Saturday, the only violence occurring in the neighborhood is in a 12-by-12 ring between consenting adults." They understood that it was illegal and unsanctioned, but they knew they had to police a community, not just enforce laws that legislators come up with in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C.
Now, unfortunately, we have the Miami-Dade Crime Suppression Team, which almost exclusively arrests young black men for marijuana – not for dealing, but for a joint. CBS Miami just did a big exposé on it, and some of the stuff is unbelievable. In a community where only 27 percent of the population is black, 67 percent of the people arrested are black. Ninety-six percent of their arrests were for non-violent offenses, and they have an 11-percent conviction rate. In Miami, we have, like, 34 or 35 different municipalities in this county, and they're each represented by a different flag, so it's very easy for people to say, "If it happens in Little Haiti, it doesn't affect me in Hialeah. If it happens in Liberty City, what does it have to do with me in Aventura?" There's a disconnect that's dangerous.
You just mentioned Dhafir "Dada 5000" Harris. He's the central figure in the film, the man behind the backyard fights, and as such, you could say he's a community leader, or you could say he's a criminal – since these fights are technically illegal. What was your take?
I always called him the Mayor of Perrine. He has that kind of gravitational and calming force; he's kind of like an anchor. No one wants to fuck up and piss Dada off. He has a line in the film where he says, "I don't consider this violence, I consider this an alternative to violence," which I think is a very compelling discussion. He has a degree in early childhood education, he worked for the Department of Children and Families as an investigator, going into homes…so he has a really interesting background. He might not have the background for politics, but I think on a community level, he's a force for good, and he's known that way by local authorities. When I first met him, I was struck by how incredibly warm, welcoming and charismatic he was – of course, he was very interested in us raising his profile, covering "The big one," as he put it: His fight after the MLK Day parade.
What was it like filming that fight?
I wanted to treat it like it was an action movie, basically; we had nine cameras going in the backyard, on the roof, a 30-foot jib, one on Dada at all times, one on the crowd, one on each fighter. So I was shooting, and we were picking up people everywhere to shoot, anybody that could hold a camera. I remember the neighbors brought out the barbecue drum and the fryer, put up card tables with menus – it was like a block party, and then you have these two grown men stepping inside 12-by-12 ring, and you put Dada in there as the ref, and then they start throwing fists at each other. It's like two helicopters just going.
And we're all pressed against the ropes, I'm covering the northeast corner of the ring, and Mike Trujillo and Chocolate start fighting and there's this huge knockout. And in that moment, Mike's head lands not three feet from me, and I'm on my knee filming, there's blood on the camera, it was a very surreal moment. You're filming it, and there's this disconnect because you're looking through a lens, but then you'd look up and he was lying right there. And there was a chance he might not get up, ever, and I thought, "Oh my God, he's dead, or paralyzed." And you think about his family, and you think of the guy who knocked him out, and you think, "He's going to jail. Dada's going to jail. Our footage is evidence." The life of everybody in the backyard flashed before my eyes.
In your opinion, was it the stars of the film, or the subject matter than made it difficult for you to find distribution?
We're not Bruckheimer successful, but we had some success with Cocaine Cowboys and the "30 for 30" films, so I was feeling good about this one. And people started watching the rough cut, and they were like, "Holy shit, this is your best work – No, I won't buy it." My three favorite rejections were, "Too violent, too urban, too real." It was this galvanizing rejection. This was unabashed, completely uncensored urban culture, and that was the problem: People were petrified of that. There's no Dana White, there's no Roger Goodell. None of those guys are there to tell you it's OK. That scared people, but that's what I liked so much about this project; it's what I liked so much about The U, it was a bunch of guys who just didn't give a fuck. So we had decided we were going to self-distribute it, because we had already invested all this time and our own dime, and we wanted people to see it, to know the struggle. And then Netflix came to the rescue! They were like, "We'll fucking show this!" And that was extraordinary.
Are you concerned that people will focus on the violence in the film, and perhaps miss the larger points you're trying to make?
It's almost like these are hollow victories; they win a fight and then it's like, "Now what?" I saw fighters make as little as $200 in the backyard, because it's based on what they get from the gate, and there's some gambling too, but you're like, "Shit, that's it?" Even when these guys go pro, yes, they're licensed by the state, they have real promoters and trainers, but now what? Even if you win, you're not going to do this until you're 60. There's not really any long-term goals. For the fighters, the goal is feeding their children today. That's success to them. One fight at a time, literally or metaphorically. There's an inherent tragedy in that, and I hope people see that. Maybe that's not the only option these fighters have, but they believe it is, so isn't that part of the tragedy? This is their perception of their place in the world.
Since you wrapped the film, Dada's backyard fights have been shut down, but he's continued on with the BYB Extreme Fighting series. Are you aware of the event he's planning next month?
Yeah, Dada is living the sequel right now. Unfortunately, we kind of raised the profile of his fights, and authorities had no choice but to crack down on him. So he was at a crossroads: go back underground, or go legit. So he formed the fight league; he's training the fighters, and he'll have medical attention for a change. And yeah, I heard that he's planning go out on this boat and have fights in international waters, in a triangle-shaped ring on the top deck of this cruise ship! It's fucking nuts, but if you knew Dada was going to do something, he was going to do it big.