The rise and fall of Tonya Harding, the gifted American figure skater and would be contender who squandered two chances to become an Olympic medalist is an American tragedy. One could also agree that the Tonya Harding saga is indeed an American crime story, considering the unexpected dark turns the story eventually took.
There is a subtle nod in the second half of I, Tonya where happenings in the film intersect with the trial of O.J Simpson and this confluence of two tabloid driven reality television events makes one wonder what Ryan Murphy and his team, given the chance, would do with the I,Tonya story.
In 1994, Ms Harding and her former husband, Jeff Gillooly were accused of conspiracy in a career challenging physical attack on Nancy Kerrigan, a ‘’friend’’ and rival. Ms Kerrigan, a two time Olympic medalist, was practicing for the United States Figure Skating Championships in Detroit when she was attacked by a fellow who hit her on the legs with a baton.
This ‘’incident’’ is the elephant in the room and according to one character in an early scene of I, Tonya-directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Aussie actress, Margot Robbie in the title role- the reason we are all gathered to revisit the story. It is however teased and drawn out to serve as the film’s final arc.
In the meantime, I, Tonya busies itself with trying to dig into Tonya Harding’s backstory as exposition. Every significant event in Harding’s life, right from her birth has led to the ‘’incident’’ and the subsequent outcomes. She is born as hard scrapple trailer trash to a serial divorcee. Harding is close to her father but he eventually has to leave the family.
Harding is raised- more like emotionally and physically abused- by her mother, LaVona (a deliciously over the top Alison Janney, scowling her way to an Oscar nomination). With a mother like LaVona, Ms Harding stood no chance really. Once her prodigious gifts were discovered, LaVona put her to training, the way a cattle rearer would put their animals to work. Nursing the effects of years of domestic abuse, Harding finds comfort in Jeff, the first boy to look her way.
I,Tonya announces itself with some form of a disclaimer.
It is based on a series of “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” and as such, isn’t particularly concerned with presenting the truth. Everyone has their own side of the story and between Harding, Gillooly and LaVona, the entire film is presented as a mockumentary with characters recalling events as it suits them and constantly breaking the fourth wall. Some scenes are presented first through Harding’s eyes and then from Gillooly’s point of view with both characters choosing to remember things differently.
Gillespie extracts excellent performances from his cast, particularly Robbie and Janney and the makeup and wardrobe team deserve special mentions for ensuring both actresses come as close as possible to the real deal.
Looking nothing like the real Tonya Harding does not stop movie star Margot Robbie from diving into the juiciest role of her career thus far. She ‘’uglies up’’, puts on weight, dresses garishly, learns to figure skate and makes a very good impression of an actress working hard to transform. It works for the most part, even when her stunning good looks keep getting in the way.
I,Tonya grapples with some dark themes but it makes extra effort to stay in the comedy lane even though the final third is an undeniable tragedy. Gillespie keeps a certain lightness of touch that will no doubt bring audiences in and keep them entertained but at the same time, plays like a less than genuine lesson on the effects of domestic abuse.
In the spirit of The People vs O.J Simpson, I, Tonya is a careful and careless study on the manipulative relationships that usually develop between the media and the topics or persons they choose to focus their attention on. It also makes a passionate case for Tonya Harding’s fall as the inevitable consequence of the uncommon upbringing and socialization that was her lot in life.
Tonya Harding may have had the raw talent, and the uncommon ability to nail the triple axel, but at the end of the day, she stood no chance with the uppity gatekeepers of ice skating, who found her rough around the edges and constantly undermined her whenever possible.
From damaging relationships with her family and friends, Harding moved to tenuous ones with the press and the public. They voraciously consumed her, hailed her and then judged her for details which she had no control over. According to I, Tonya.
Gillesipie’s film does not quite break the mold of the conventional biopic even when it attempts doing so many things at once. But it is a fitting and worthy tribute to a character who constantly fell short of the respect and adulation that she desperately craved.
Tonya Harding was treated as less than human by almost everyone she came in contact with. I, Tonya asks that we accept our complicity, but in a nice, delightful kind of way. Sometimes it feels like it is saying two mutually exclusive things.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.