DANCES WITH FILMS 2023 REVIEW! Blake Leeper is a Paralympic sprinter and star of director Einar Thorsteinsson’s perceptive documentary, Abled: The Blake Leeper Story. The movie delves into the athlete’s drive and personality. In particular, the focus is on his conflict with the World Athletics (formerly IAAF), who disqualified him from competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team on the grounds of what they call “Technological Doping.”
The introspective documentary follows Leeper as he works to secure a spot at the 2020 Olympics to compete against “able-bodied” athletes. Leeper is a double amputee and uses prosthetic legs, yet he works to be an effective runner. His coach, Willie Gault, pushes him to be calmer and to practice smoother techniques. The film opens with an overhead shot of Leeper running, coinciding with frequent cuts to home video footage of his younger self and archival footage of Martin Luther King Jr. The sequence is kinetic and affecting. An extreme close-up shows Leeper in deep thought as he takes the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to heart and, against all odds, keeps moving.
With tightly edited, beautifully lensed moments of the subject running and training with his coach under the scorching sun, Thorsteinsson highlights Leeper’s capacity to push himself to be better. Still, the filmmaker addresses his upbringing and how even as a kid, he bravely confronted every setback. Leeper was born without legs and has worn prosthetics since an early age. To see how he’s progressed over the years speaks to his optimism and willpower, although the filmmaker sensibly keeps Abled: The Blake Leeper Story focused on the man’s main objective to be part of the U.S. Olympic team.
“…to secure a spot at the 2020 Olympics to compete against ‘able-bodied’ athletes.”
Leeper’s story is inspiring, as he would go on to hold several world records and become one of the fastest runners in the world. During the Czech Republic meet, he completed the 400m run in 44.42 seconds, beating the two-time world indoor champion by 2 seconds. His time happened to be fast enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. But the World Athletics denied his score, asserting that his blades gave him an advantage, and thus began another battle entirely.
Thorsteinsson pulls you in initially with a stylistically compelling sequence that gets Leeper’s character across. However, Abled: The Blake Leeper Story becomes increasingly less dynamic as it goes along, and scientific verbiage comes into play. However, the director pulls you back in with a stirring final act that cements Leeper as the winner that he is, regardless of what the sport’s governing organization believes.
Intriguingly, there’s a portion of the documentary where Dr. Abu Yilla, a former Paralympian and professor at the University of Texas Arlington, claims the World Athletics’ reasoning doesn’t hold up. That said, he contemplates the advancement of prosthetic technology in terms of advantages and what it may look like in the future. But, at the end of the day, this is about Leeper fighting to be included in a sport in which he, without a doubt, deserves to compete in. “I have nothing to hide. My motivation comes from proving people wrong,” he says assuredly, and you feel for him because he fought so hard to get to where he is now.
Abled: The Blake Leeper Story is a powerful documentary about the undismayed Blake Leeper. No matter what, he’ll continue to run and stun the crowd, maybe even break a few more records. While the pacing stumbles halfway through, Thorsteinsson still upholds a moving depiction of resilience while exposing the ways that disabled athletes are mistreated to this day.
Abled: The Blake Leeper Story screened at the 2023 Dances With Films.
"…a moving depiction of resilience..."