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On Thin Ice

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
On Thin Ice Movie Poster Image
Inspiring docu on athletes who have faced prejudice.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 75 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Documentary discusses the role of activism in sports, the history of the fight for equality in sports at all levels of competition, the progress made, and the work that remains to be done. Documentary highlights the stories of those who were held back in sports due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical disability, and the trailblazers who made it possible for minorities, ethnicities, women, LGBTQ athletes, and those with disabilities to have the chance to compete in sports. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Through interviews, narrative, and discussion, the documentary presents athletes from the past and present who have faced discrimination, and how individual athletes of the past and present, through the courage of their convictions and standing up for who they are, made it possible for athletes in later generations to have the opportunity to compete in sports. 

Violence

One of the athletes discusses the bullying he endured throughout his childhood from his older brothers. 

Sex
Language

"Fag" used several times, in the context of the homophobia gay athletes have endured in competition or in the locker room. 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that On Thin Ice is a 2019 documentary about the history and current realities of prejudice and discrimination, in all its forms, in sports. This documentary takes a look at the exclusion, hatred, and hazing that some athletes have faced over the past hundred years based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. A homophobic slur is used in the context of gay athletes talking about the belittling locker room talk they would hear (and sometimes, while still closeted, take part in) between teammates; this same slur is shown on protest signs held by members of an infamous fundamentalist church from Kansas. Overall, this documentary covers a lot of ground, and for families who compete in competitive sports, and parents who played competitive sports while growing up, the discussions presented could inspire thoughtful conversation about instances of prejudice, discrimination, and bullying they witnessed and experienced while playing sports, how far we have come in the last hundred years, and how much progress still needs to be done. 

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What's the story?

Jack Brooks was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who immigrated to America in the 1920s. He was a champion speed skater, but was ultimately denied a spot on the US Olympic Team for the 1932 Olympics. This decision to exclude Brooks wasn't based on merit, but due to his ethnicity and background. Using Brooks' story as a starting point, On Thin Ice transitions into the story of the athletes over the past hundred years who have faced prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and exclusion due to their race, ethnicity, gender, and disability. It discusses the role of social and political activism among athletes over the years, and takes a look at where we are today in terms of what has changed, and what hasn't. 

Is it any good?

On Thin Ice is clearly an earnest documentary about prejudice and discrimination, in all its forms, during the last hundred years in sports. It shows how far sports have come since champion speed skaters were denied the chance to compete on the US Team in the 1932 Olympics because they were Jewish, but also shows that the fight for equality still has progress to be made. For instance, the documentary shows how far Michael Sam fell in the NFL Draft when he came out as a gay player, and the shocking statistic that only 4% of all sports programming is dedicated to female athletes. It also interviews former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, who talks of how his outspoken support of same-sex marriage led to him being cut by the Minnesota Vikings. 

While it's a documentary that can't be anything but inspiring, it's also a documentary lacking in a coherent focus. One gets the feeling that the original idea was to make a documentary about Jack Brooks -- the speed skater who was excluded from the US Olympic Team because he was Jewish -- but there wasn't enough material to make it a full-length feature, and so Brooks' story bookends a documentary that tries to go everywhere at once and so becomes too much for one feature-length documentary. Also, in case the audience is unsure how they should be feeling about the trials and triumphs these athletes have experienced while fighting against prejudice in all forms, there's a near-constant soundtrack of the kind of uplifting music heard in the climaxes of every "underdog/comeback kid" movie ever made. None of this makes the overarching message less important and worthwhile, but it does get in the way, and prevents a good documentary from being a great documentary. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about sports documentaries. How does this compare to other sports documentaries you've seen?

  • How does the movie use historical archives, sports highlights, and interviews with athletes to tell its story and convey its message?

  • How does the movie connect the many different forms of prejudice that have prevented, and in some respects continue to prevent, competitive sports at all levels from being based entirely on the merit, skill, and prowess of the individual athletes? 

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