‘Rising Phoenix’ documentary covers history of Paralympics but stereotypes disabled athletes

Sabrina LeBoeuf

The Netflix original documentary “Rising Phoenix” makes a superhero narrative out of Paralympians. Intimate backstories and artistic shots highlight the competitors as superhumans in their athletic elements. The documentary overtly brings praise, honor and glory to several star athletes and the Paralympic Games as a whole — sometimes to a fault. 

The Paralympic Games are organized alongside the Olympic Games and feature athletes with disabilities. This documentary tells the story of the Paralympics and its athletes through interviews, archival footage, home videos and poetic portrayals of the athletes as Greek gods carved in stone. “Rising Phoenix” describes how the games have evolved since the 19th century; however, it mainly focuses on the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“Rising Phoenix” has some issues with stereotyping. Disabled people are presented as one and the same: inspirational. While some Paralympians truly have touching stories, not all disabled people are international athletes or should be shown as inspirational strictly because of their disability. The diversity of the experiences and stories within the disabled community is not presented in the documentary.

Additionally, South African sprinter Ntando Mahlangu is filmed running with a cheetah, a tribute to the name of his prosthetic legs. However, these scenes perpetuate the misconception that Africa is all savannah and rural areas. It should be noted that the two directors, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, are both white.


What “Rising Phoenix” lacks in understanding, it makes up for in education and heartwarming sentiment. The history of the Paralympic Games is intermingled with the storylines of the featured athletes, and these scenes provide critical context for understanding the creation of the games and how they have evolved. Furthermore, the founder of the Paralympic Games, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, and those who continue his legacy are given proper recognition. 

With this history told in conjunction with the impactful storylines of the athletes, it’s no surprise there are goosebump-inducing, tear-filled moments paired with swells of music: the wins, the losses, the training, the camaraderie. Even the athletes are not immune to shedding a tear or two.

“Rising Phoenix” is not without its flaws. However, in a day and age when people need a break from isolation and societal turmoil, this film serves as an opportunity to escape to a place of hope and unity. 

This documentary shows the outright worst of the world — murder, disease, prejudice — and the absolute best of humanity by emphasizing the impact of global comraderie. Right now, that’s something we could all use a little more of.

In no way is this documentary worth watching twice. Just once is enough to reminisce about the days when we could be emotionally touched by powerful athletes and their stories from our seats in the stadium. 

3.7 out of 5 stars.