Monday, March 2, 2009


This is an incredibly moving documentary. At least it was for me. I caught it on the Sundance channel.

It's about the championship boxer from the Virgin islands who was rumored to be gay back in the late 1950s and early '60s, at a time when no public figure was known to be gay except, as the film points out, maybe Liberace. Certainly no athelete, and definitely no boxer.

He captured a couple of championships in different weight classes. But then in a fight to regain one of those championship belts in early 1962 against Benny Paret, who had been making derogatory remarks about Griffith's sexuality, Griffith ended up pummeling Paret so intensely that the man seems to have been knocked into a coma before he even hit the floor. A come he never recovered from, dying not many days later and leaving an impact on Griffith that can only be imagined but the film captures pretty well.

(It left an impact on boxing as well, being the first televised fight to actually record a fight that ended in death. In fact it led to the Friday night fights that had been a staple of TV for many years—I used to watch them with my father every week when I was a kid—being kicked off the air for at least a decade.)

Then decades later, drunk and leaving a gay bar in Manhattan, Griffith was attacked vicously by a gang of young homophobic thugs who beat him so badly he almost died. He spent a month in the hopsital but never entirely recovered his cognitive facilities.

Seeing this story and the love and forgiveness Griffith found in his life is overwhelmingly real and poignant and so far from the usual cliches and stereotypes that fictional characters in movies end up displaying, it makes this film one of a kind, like so many great documentaries.

If you get the chance to see it, I think you'll be surprised by the deep feelings it evokes, despite what may be an intial resistance to so violent a subject and the seemingly unknowable characters at the heart of it. I was.


douglang said...

Michael, I caught this too, the last time it was on Sundance (and recorded it(. Norman Mailer (whom I know you didn't like much, if at all), had a great piece about it years ago in The Presidential Papers -- I believe it was called Ten Thousand Words a Minute. It is an extremely powerful piece of writing. What's great about Ring of Fire is that it goes way beyond Mailer's piece. It is just so moving. I was an avid boxing fan for many years and a great admirer of Emile griffith back in the day. I had never heard that he was gay -- outside of Benny Paret's taunting him with that accusation. so the film was a revelation in that regard, too. And the fact that he was an aspiring fashion designer before he entered boxing was news to me. also.

I'm so glad that you saw this and wrote about it here. Like many documentary films, it deserves much wider recognition. I had never even heard of it before it showed up on Sundance. Somebody should screen it for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A great post. man. Thanks again.

Lally said...

Thanks Doug. Yeah, I was a big boxing fan back in the day, but I became less and less able to witness the violent damage these guys were doing to each other, especially after even Ali began to suffer from years of getting hit, and managed to get hit less than most. As Pete Hammill I think it was says in this documentary, it's a poor people's sport for "middle-class" people to "enjoy."