THE BLACK ATHLETE

Breaking the Color Barrier

Sports have always symbolized the American ideals of sportsmanship and fair play. The role of African Americans in sports has, until more recent years, been denied, omitted and overlooked. Black athletes have never lacked the ability, grace or strength to excel in sports, but have historically been handicapped and prevented from the opportunity to compete on equal terms with white athletes. Only after decades of sacrifice and struggle has this right been restored.

The unfairness of discrimination is obvious today, but this was not always the case. From 1888 to 1946, no profession in America enforced the color line more stubbornly than organized baseball. The game was lily-white, forcing a segregation in which black players were relegated to minor league baseball teams. In 1880, there were twenty blacks playing there. By 1887, however, there were still no black players in the major leagues and the twenty in the minors, all lost their jobs. Jim Crow racism would rule baseball and all of America for many years to come.

Until the late 1940s the boxing ring was one of the few places where an African American could use his athletic ability to make money. Bigotry dominated even there, however; the black man was placed in the ring to lose. Where better could the support of racism and the myths of superiority of whites over blacks be played out more convincingly than in hand to hand combat in the ring? That myth was shattered in 1908 when Jack Johnson became the first black to win the heavyweight championship, resulting in a national furor among whites. Johnson's triumph brought racial prejudice in sports to the front page and out in the open -not only to the U.S. but also to the entire world.

It wasn't until World War II that the issues of social equality and integration sounded the need for change in America and with it, the black athlete. The years following the war marked a milestone in the history of blacks in American sports. White men who operated professional sports were finally forced to acknowledge equality both on and off the field.

Since the silent era, filmmakers have been drawn to the world of sports, not only as visual spectacles but also for its universal examples of conflict, triumph and individual achievement. However, the black athlete was virtually ignored, except by newsreel cameras. The films of the second half of the century began to illustrate a gradual maturation in Hollywood's (and America's) attitude regarding black athletes, a long-overdue recognition fueled by desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

Still, there is a void in Hollywood regarding iconic black athletes who broke color barriers and became symbols of American excellence. Where are the filmed biographies of African-American athletes such as early gridiron legend Fritz Pollard or tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe? Why no filmic celebration of award-winning legends such as golf pros Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, baseball's Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, basketball's Chuck Cooper and Oscar Robertson, or track legends Wilma Rudolph or Jackie Joyner-Kersee? Hollywood is woefully behind in telling the life stories of our greatest black athletes.

This exhibit chronicles the careers and lives of those few athletes acknowledged and immortalized by writers and filmmakers inside and outside of the Hollywood system. It reminds us of the unfairness of early discrimination, but more importantly celebrates their achievements and contributions. The recognition of the black athlete on film is evolving and with hope, in the years to come, will be even greater.

THE CHAMPEEN

THE CHAMPEEN

Pathe, 1922


Considered one of the best episodes of the "Our Gang" series, this short film featured three-year-old Allen "Farina" Hoskins and Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, who plays a fight promoter trying to raise money after he is caught stealing apples from a fruit stand. In a guilt-ridden fantasy sequence, Sammy is shown in prison stripes, chained and working on a rock pile under the watchful eye of an armed guard (white, of course). Ostensibly for a laugh, Hollywood persisted in damaging the self-image of the black child. Morrison was most famous as one of the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids, and made his film debut at age 3 appearing in The Soul of a Child in 1916.

He appeared in three films with comedian Harold Lloyd and was paired with Snub Polllad in a series of one-reel comedies in 1920. Producer Hal Roach gave Morrison his own comedy series in 1921, but only one was made. With 14 films already under his belt, Roach then cast him as one of the original Our Gang kids. He left the series in 1924 for a turn in vaudeville, where he spent the next 16 years. When the East Side Kids films were being cast, producer Sam Katzman remembered Morrison from the days when Katzman was a theatrical producer and hired him for the cast. Morrison left the series when he was drafted into the army during World War II, and after being released declined an offer for his old job back.

After a final role in 20th Century Fox's Greenwich Village (1944) in which he was uncredited, Morrison left show business entirely and spent the next 30 years in the aircraft industry.

Back to Top

SPIRIT OF YOUTH

SPIRIT OF YOUTH

Grand National, 1937


Joe Louis, "the Brown Bomber," who many consider to be the greatest boxer of all time, makes his acting debut as Joe Thomas, a poor fighter who climbs to the top by learning the value of self defense. Unfortunately, he forfeits his training for the romantic lure of a woman and the nightlife in a big city. From the time he began his professional career in 1934 until he retired as champion, Louis lost only one bout, a defeat by the German Max Schmelling in 1936 that he avenged two years later in one of the most memorable events in American sports history.

Louis held the heavyweight boxing championship longer than any fighter had in history (from1937 to 1949) and retired with sixty-eight victories in seventy-one fights, and fifty-four knockouts. However, it was not merely for his stunning record that America remembers Joe Louis. He was a figure of national importance and a symbol of opportunity to his race. Each victory elevated him higher in the hearts and minds of African Americans as a living icon of black pride. Unfortunately, after Louis' retirement in 1949 he became a shadow of his past greatness.

Interestingly, it was the end of both Louis' domination of boxing and segregation in American sports. By the early 1950s, Louis lost his unique place as the symbol for African Americans when dozens of other black athletes, including Jackie Robinson, Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Mays, broke through the race barriers in sports.

Back to Top

LOUIS VS SCHMELLING

LOUIS VS SCHMELLING

Exclusive Official Motion Pictures, 1938


Boxer Joe Louis was African America's greatest hero of the 1930's. By 1935 he had won eighteen professional fights and was tagged by sports writers as "The Brown Bomber." He won his first twenty-seven pro fights (twenty-three by knockout) and as heavyweight champion became the most important sports figure in America as well as a source of tremendous pride within the black community. Louis was catapulted into further fame when on June 19, 1936 at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, NY, he was matched against Germany's Max Schmeling.

The bout was delayed a day because of rain and the odds were 10-to-1 Louis would win, and 4-to-1 he would win by knockout. His share of the gate was $139,483.50 and Schmelling was guaranteed $150,000 tax-free. In the 12th round, the previously unbeaten champion was defeated by the German. Hitler and the Nazis claimed that this proved the superiority of the white race.

In a rematch two years later, Louis, who was under great pressure, abruptly defeated Schmeling in the first round and silenced the Nazi racists forever. Louis later wrote, "I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me." In fairness to Schmeling, in 1993, Holocaust survivor researchers proved that he was not a Nazi and risked death by hiding two Jewish teenagers in his Berlin hotel room, during the infamous "Kristallnact Pogroms" (Night of Broken Glass) of November 1938.

Back to Top

KEEP PUNCHING

KEEP PUNCHING

M.C. Pictures, 1939


Henry Armstrong, the only pugilist ever to hold three championship titles (lightweight, featherweight, and welterweight), was a natural box office attraction in this black-cast sports melodrama. Armstrong's acting limitations were counterbalanced by the casting of a roster of talented African-American thespians, including Alvin Childress, Canada Lee, Dooley Wilson, and Francine Everett, making her film debut as the heroine. Armstrong retired from the ring in 1945 having fought 175 bouts (winning 97 by knockout). Intelligent and a fluent speaker, he turned to preaching and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1951.

Back to Top

WHILE THOUSANDS CHEER

WHILE THOUSANDS CHEER

Million Dollar Productions, 1940


In a classic example of typecasting, Kenny Washington, former UCLA All-American football star, plays a clean-cut young college athlete trying to distance himself from unwanted criminal interference in varsity sports. Mantan Moreland has a minor role in this melodrama. The film was also later re-distributed by the Ted Toddy Organization under the title Crooked Money. When the NFL was reintegrated in 1946, (one year before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier) the Los Angeles Rams were the first NFL team to integrate when they signed Kenny Washington and UCLA veteran Woody Strode the same year. Their contracts opened the door for future African American athletes to compete in the NFL.

Back to Top

THE FIGHT NEVER ENDS

THE FIGHT NEVER ENDS

Alexander Releasing Co., 1947


Nine years earlier, heavyweight boxing champion of the world made his acting debut in Spirit of Youth (1938). In this, his second film, Louis plays himself and becomes a good influence on a group of Harlem youths tempted to "go bad." A brief appearance by the Mills Brothers added some musical flavor and Ruby Dee, star of the stage hit Anna Lucasta, makes her film debut. In between serving in the United States Army during World War II, Louis kept on defending his title, totaling 25 defenses from 1937 to 1949. He was a world champion for 11 years and 10 months, after which he left his crown vacant. He set records for longevity as world champion non-stop, and that record still stands.

Back to Top

THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY

THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY

Eagle Lion Films Inc., 1950


As a student at UCLA in 1940, Jackie Robinson developed the athletic skills to play baseball, basketball, football, and track, earning him a statewide reputation in sports. In 1941he played professional football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs and, following service as a lieutenant in World War II, was signed by the Montreal Royals, a minor league farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After winning the league's batting title in 1946, Robinson joined the major leagues as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He made his debut at Ebbet's Field on April 15, 1947, breaking the "color line" to become the first African American to play major league baseball. Hostile opponents and racist spectators publicly provoked him with bean-ball pitches and death threats. Conscious of his unique position as a role model, Robinson managed to ignore all racial epithets, even his own teammates' attempt to eject him from the team. In 1947, he led the National League in stolen bases and was named Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he won the National League batting title and the Most Valuable Player award. Robinson gained respect and became a symbol of black accomplishment and opportunity. His story quickly captured the nation's imagination, and after the Dodgers won the 1949 pennant, he took time off to star in The Jackie Robinson Story, a film about the story of his life.

It co-stars Ruby Dee, Louise Beavers, Joel Fluellen, Bernie Hamilton and football great Kenny Washington. Branch Rickey, the tough-minded crusader and owner of the Dodgers, stood up to all criticism and offered many reasons for hiring Robinson. Initially, Rickey maintained that he wanted to put the best possible team on the field. Teams at that time relied almost exclusively on ticket sales to pay for spring training, travel, salaries, stadium upkeep, and still try to make a profit. Attendance was always higher for winning teams and Rickey believed that African-American players could improve his team.

The Dodgers succeeded with such black stars as Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe. Rickey later acknowledged that his belief in equal rights was also a strong motive in signing African Americans to the Dodgers. With baseball's door open for black players, others soon followed. In that first year, Dan Bankhead pitched for the Dodgers, Larry Doby played for the Cleveland Indians, and Henry Thompson and Willard Brown played briefly for the St. Louis Browns. Although some teams began to integrate right away, it was not until 1959 that all major league teams fully integrated. Robinson succeeded in breaking racial barriers and paving the way for other black athletes to participate in professional sports.

Having endured years of openly expressed racial prejudice, he became the first African American to receive recognition in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1962. Robinson played his entire major league career for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1947-1956). As a tribute, in 1997, major league baseball retired Robinson's jersey number 42.

Back to Top

THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS

THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS

Columbia Pictures, 1951


The story of the legendary Harlem Globetrotters takes second place to the rise to prominence of All-American athlete Billy Brown (a star Globetrotter, here playing himself). While still in college, Brown drops his education in favor of joining the famed basketball team. Lacking the esprit de corps of his teammates, Brown is only interested in fattening his bank account. It takes a few major setbacks, coupled with the no-nonsense devotion of his sweetheart Ann Carpenter (played by Dorothy Dandridge) to realign Brown's priorities.

Thomas Gomez heads the cast as Abe Saperstein, the real-life entrepreneur who organized the Trotters back in 1927 as a barnstorming team. In 1940, the team won the World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago. Later, however, the Globetrotters switched their on-court focus from competitive playing to showmanship, captivating fans around the world and drawing enormous crowds. The players' comic warm-up routine is accompanied by the team's instrumental (and whistled) theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Back to Top

CRAZYLEGS

CRAZYLEGS

Republic Pictures, 1953


A biography based on the distinguished career of Pro football Hall of Famer, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, and starring his Los Angeles Rams teammates. Paul 'Tank' Younger, who broke the NFL's color barrier by becoming the first black player in an NFL All-Star Game, went on to become the league's first black assistant general manager in 1975. Richard 'Night Train' Lane, cornerback (1952-1953) also played with the Chicago Cardinals (1954-1959) and the Detroit Lions (1960-1965) and was inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. Briefly married to singer Dinah Washington until her death in 1963, he appeared in only one other film Paper Lion (1968).

Woodley Lewis played defensive back/offensive end for the Los Angeles Rams (1950-1955), Chicago Cardinals (1956-1958), and Dallas Cowboys (1960). Deacon Dan Towler played fullback (1950-1955) but gave up his football career to become a Methodist minister.

Back to Top

THE JOE LOUIS STORY

THE JOE LOUIS STORY

United Artists, 1953


Joe Louis, known as "the Brown Bomber," was considered the greatest boxer of all time. He starred in two movies, The Spirit of Youth (1937) and The Fight Never Ends (1947). But by the time Hollywood was casting this highly-fictionalized biopic, Louis was too old to portray himself. Instead, the role went to professional boxer Coley Wallace. Louis held the heavyweight boxing championship from1937 to 1949 -- longer than any fighter in history, retiring as champion.

He lost only one bout, to German Max Schmelling in 1936, but avenged himself two years later in one of the most memorable events in American sports history. However, it was not merely for his stunning record in the ring that America remembers Joe Louis. He was a figure of national importance and a symbol of achievement to his race. Each victory by Louis, fueled black national pride and raised him higher in the hearts and minds of African Americans. Between matches to defend his title, Louis served four years in the racially divided United States Army during World War II.

He fought in exhibition matches to raise money for the Armed Services and boost morale of the troops. Louis received a Legion of Merit decoration for his contributions to race relations and military morale and eventually retired as a sergeant. Unfortunately, after Louis' 1949 retirement, he became a shadow of his past greatness. Once a dominant force in segregated sports, Louis lived to see his unique status unseated; by the early 1950s, dozens of black athletes like Jackie Robinson, Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Mays broke through the race barrier.

Hounded relentlessly by the IRS for back taxes, tripped up by a succession of broken marriages, and distracted by a brief attempt at professional wrestling, Louis saw his fame erode. He was no longer able to prosper from his legendary status and spent the last three decades of his life in financial difficulty. By 1970, manifesting signs of emotional distress and paranoia, Louis underwent treatment in a hospital. Upon his release, he accepted the position of official "greeter" at Caesar's Palace Casino in Las Vegas, a job that allowed him to interact once more with an adoring public. In later years, a stroke confined Louis to a wheelchair. He died of a heart attack on April 12, 1981 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Back to Top

AKA CASSIUS CLAY

AKA CASSIUS CLAY

United Artists, 1970


Muhammad Ali, one of the most recognizable men of the 20th century, has become immortal in his own lifetime. Perhaps the greatest boxer in history, he stands among the ranks of celebrated black pugilists Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, he grew up at a time when being black and poor meant no prospects for economic advancement. The young Clay was lucky, however; a local cop gave him boxing lessons to stand up to local bullies.

By age eighteen Clay had won six Kentucky Golden Glove competitions and a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. On February 25, 1964, Clay shook up the boxing world by unexpectedly grabbing the heavyweight championship title from Sonny Liston. Soon after the victory, Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated, the U.S. Army drafted Ali. Citing his Islamic faith, he refused to join up. He was stripped of his championship title, had his boxing licenses revoked and was sentenced to prison for draft evasion. Ali responded to the charges, "I'm expected to go help free people in South Vietnam while my people here are being brutalized and mistreated. I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger." Three years later, the U.S.

Supreme Court overturned the sentence on appeal. Granted a license to box again, Ali staged a comeback. He began a long-running personal rivalry with fellow heavyweight Joe Frazier, whom he fought three times, and defeated George Foreman in the famous 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire. Ali later recalled, "Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn't trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand that all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn't just black people being drafted."

AKA Cassius Clay is an intimate documentary featuring clips from Ali's early bouts, commentary from his personal trainer Cus D'Amato, and rarely-seen interviews with the fighter himself. The film was released in 1970, prior to his legal victory in the U.S. Supreme Court. The charismatic and outspoken Ali retired from the ring in 1981 and in the decades since remains an international celebrity, sports hero and spokesman for world peace.

Back to Top

GREAT WHITE HOPE

GREAT WHITE HOPE

20th Century Fox, 1970


Adapted by Howard Sackler from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, The Great White Hope tells the fictionalized and loosely based life story of the first black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson. James Earl Jones, repeating the role that made him a star on Broadway, plays the flamboyant and self destructive boxing great, who in the face of a white world which conspired against him, is forced to fight racism, hostile fans, and aggressive promoters in the early 1900s. For Jones' towering performance, he received an Academy Awards nomination for Best Actor.

Back to Top

BRIAN'S SONG

BRIAN'S SONG

Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems Television, 1971


Based on a true and heartbreaking story, Brian's Song stars Billy Dee Williams and James Caan as Chicago Bears football greats Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Their inspiring story of interracial friendship and emotional courage was adapted to film from Sayer's autobiography "I Am Third." The story begins in 1965, when two rookie running backs arrive for training camp.

They have little in common since Piccolo is white and Sayers is black, but while they are competing for the same position on the team, a strong relationship and bond quickly develop. Before long the two are the best of friends as well as roommates and team chemistry benefits because of it. All of that changes suddenly when Sayers suffers a severe knee injury ending his season prematurely. Piccolo pushes and motivates Sayers to rehabilitate his injury and make a full recovery. Sayers comes back the following season only to find that his devoted friend has become ill and must struggle with the terminal cancer that would eventually take his life.

Critics consider Brian's Song one of the finest TV movies ever made. Produced only six months after the death of Brian Piccolo, the film received enormous praise and won multiple Emmy Awards. In 2001, thirty years later, the story was remade for an episode of television's The Wonderful World of Disney with Mekhi Phifer in the role of Sayers and Sean Maher as Piccolo.

Back to Top

THE FIGHT

THE FIGHT

Closed Circuit Television, 1971


The first match between boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier is referred to as "The Fight of the Century." The Fight was unique in that for the first time in history it matched an unbeaten former heavyweight champion against the unbeaten current champ. Ali had been stripped of his title after refusing induction into the Army in 1967. Since he had not lost the crown in the ring, he proclaimed himself the People's Champion. As he entered the ring against Frazier, his record stood at 31-0 with 25 knockouts. In Ali's absence, Frazier won recognition as heavyweight champion after stopping Buster Mathis in 1968 and in 1970 after defeating WBA champion Jimmy Ellis. As he climbed into the ring, his record was 26-0 with 23 knockouts.

Frazier and Ali boxed evenly until late in round 11, when Frazier caught Ali, backed into a corner, with a crushing left hook that almost floored Ali, sending him falling into the ropes. Ali tried to come back in the next three rounds, but at the end of round 14, Frazier held a lead on the scorecards. With about a minute to go in round 15, Frazier landed a right cross to Ali's chin and Ali, went down, cementing Frazier's lead.

A few minutes later the judges made it official: Frazier had retained the title with a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional loss. Ali and Frazier fought twice more, Ali winning both encounters. The last of these, in 1975, was the famous "Thrilla in Manila," which many consider the greatest of the trilogy.

The poster for The Fight, designed by Swiss illustrator Celestino Piatti, was specially issued for the exclusive closed-circuit television airing of the Ali Frazier match that was broadcast to the New York State Armory in Harlem and sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Back to Top

BLACK RODEO

BLACK RODEO

Cinerama, 1972


Harlem, New York may seem like an unlikely location for a rodeo but in 1972 documentary filmmakers and a cast of notable celebrities, actors and bronc riders took to the field at Randall's Island Downing Stadium to present a celebration of the thrill of a cowboy-animal roundup. The film blends elements of a good old-fashioned Western show with comments from the performers and spectators and supported by a soundtrack featuring Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Little Richard. Muhammad Ali, who amusingly entertains all of the rodeo riders, is seen riding a Brahma bull while veteran Hollywood Western actor Woody Strode discusses the long and unknown history of the black cowboy and other pioneers of the American West.

Back to Top

HAMMER

HAMMER

United Artists, 1972


There are a few giants in the world of black action films such as Pam Grier, Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree. However, there is one actor who towers over them all in sheer presence, attitude, and charisma. That man is Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. A 1960 graduate of Northwestern University in Architectural Engineering, and an outstanding athlete, Willamson went on to play pro football for the San Francisco 49'ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, and Kansas City Chiefs and had the distinction of playing in Super Bowl One.

In 1970, he jumped into acting in small roles (M*A*S*H and Tell Me You Love Me Junie Moon) but his real fame as an action hero came with the explosion of blaxploitation films. The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), Hammer (1972), Black Caesar (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1974) and others, helped establish the character he would later define; the lone, hip, cigar smoking, rogue waiting to unleash his vengeance. Starting with Boss Nigger (1975), Williamson began writing, directing and/or producing most of the low-budget features in which he starred for his own Chicago based production house Po'Boy Productions.

Back to Top

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACK BELT JONES

Warner Brothers, 1974


Producers hit paydirt with their Bruce Lee karate film, Enter the Dragon (1973), which introduced black belt champion Jim Kelly to film audiences. When Lee died in 1973, they turned to martial arts expert Kelly for their next feature, anticipating that mixing the two popular genres (kung fu and black action) would only mean greater box office revenues. With the on-screen help of Gloria Hendry, Kelly proved himself very bankable at the box office and an ideal role model for black youth who were more used to identifying with silver-screen gangsters and pimps. Dennis Coffey, whose work with Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Jackson 5 and David Ruffin made him a prominent session guitarist in Detroit during the 1970s, provides the soundtrack.

Back to Top

BLACK SIX

BLACK SIX

Cinemation, 1974


"Six Times Tougher Than Shaft... Six Times Rougher Than Super Fly" read the tagline of this memorable tale of six motorcycle riding Vietnam vets and their plight adjusting to civilian life back home in the ghetto.

Starring a cast of major football players including Gene Washington (San Francisco 49ers), Lem Barney (Detroit Lions), Willie Lanier (Kansas City Chiefs), Carl Eller (Minnesota Vikings), Mercury Morris (Miami Dolphins) and "Mean" Joe Greene (Pittsburgh Steelers) in the days before his famous Coca-Cola commercial.

This was the first of a trio of blaxploitation flicks by director Matt Cimber; Lady Cocoa (1975) and The Candy Tangerine Man (1975).

Back to Top

FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY STING LIKE A BEE

FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY STING LIKE A BEE

Evergreen Films, 1974


Included among the ranks of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali is perhaps the greatest boxer in history. Arguably the most recognizable man of the 20th century, Ali is the subject of this film by American expatriate photographer and filmmaker William Klein. Bypassing conventional documentary techniques, Klein chronicles Ali's boxing highlights from the first 1964 Sonny Liston fight to the classic 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Forman in a very loose, natural and semi-chronological collage style. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," was a phrase coined by ring corner-man Drew 'Bundini' Brown that aptly described Ali's remarkable combination of speed and power during his sixty-one fight career. The charismatic and outspoken Ali retired from the ring in 1981 and in the decades since remains an international celebrity, spokesman for world peace, hero, and icon to the world of sports.

Back to Top

CORNBREAD EARL AND ME

CORNBREAD EARL AND ME

American International Pictures, 1975


Not often do audiences have the opportunity to witness a child prodigy in the making. Twelve-year-old Laurence Fishburne, making his debut in a major motion picture, plays a young Wilford Robinson who idolizes Nathaniel 'Cornbread' Hamilton, a promising inner-city basketball hero (played by former NBA star Jamal Wilkes) who is tragically, yet mistakenly, gunned down by two police officers. Wilford is among the witnesses to the unintentional slaying and as local detectives intimidate the other witnesses to bury the truth, his world is promptly turned upside down.

Adapted from the book Hog Butcher by Ronald L. Fair, Cornbread, Earl and Me features a soundtrack by legendary jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and presents racial issues that are as timely today as they were in 1975.

Back to Top

BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS

BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS

Universal, 1976


In the world of sports in the late 1930s, America was still very much a black and white place. Marking his feature film debut, director John Badham, (Saturday Night Fever, Blue Thunder, Drop Zone) and based on the novel by William Brasher, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings touches on the injustices of segregation in American baseball. With effortless acting by a top-notch ensemble including Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor, this thought-provoking balance of social issues and comedy follows the trials and tribulations of a renegade All-Star troupe of black baseball players who defect from the Negro National League. The leads are based on authentic heroes Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

Back to Top

BLACK SAMURAI

BLACK SAMURAI

B.J.L.J. International, 1976


Jim Kelly, best known for his co-starring role in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973), stars in this kung-fu action film based on the top selling novel of the same name by Mark Olden. Actor D'Urville Martin, originally slated to direct, was replaced by cult B-film director Al Adamson, who initially intended the role to go to four time 8th Degree black belt champ Ron Van Cleef, but ended up enlisting Jim Kelly instead. Kelly, an accomplished karate master, good looking, agile and with the perfect afro, had previously starred in several blaxploitation films including Three the Hard Way (1974) and Black Belt Jones (1974).

Back to Top

GREASED LIGHTNING

GREASED LIGHTNING

Warner Brothers, 1977


Richard Pryor stars in the wild adventures of a moonshine runner who finally makes it to the winner's circle. Greased Lightning is the story of Wendell Scott, the real life racecar driver who fought hostility and prejudice to become the first black man to compete in a sport traditionally all white. Scott made the breakthrough and drove in over five hundred Grand National races over a thirty-year period at breakneck speeds, never winning a prize more than $2,200.00. He was his own promoter, mechanic and pit man, and reared a family of five while chasing a NASCAR championship, which he won in 1964.

Back to Top

FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH

FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH

Lorimar Productions, 1979


In this electrifying disco-fueled romp through the who's who of basketball greats, including Julius "Dr. J" Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the ever-versatile Debbie Allen showcases her skill on the hardwood, and pulls double-duty as both choreographer, and 'Ola', the uninhibited super-fan. The film also features Flip Wilson as coach, legendary Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon as a bible-toting slam-dunking preacher, and boasts a catchy, soulful soundtrack that includes The Four Tops and The Spinners. Allen also worked alongside NBA player Norman Nixon, who later became her husband, and added her fancy foot-work to this campy classic about a team in trouble, and the only thing that can save them - an astrologer and a team full of Pisces. Will they win? It's all in the stars.

Back to Top

PLAYING AWAY

PLAYING AWAY

Insight Productions, 1987


Cultures collide at a cricket match in this British drama that begins when an inner-city London team comprised of West Indian immigrants accepts an invitation to play a match in stuffy Snedington, an upscale country village, as part of their "Third World Week" celebration.

The story is divided into three sections. The first introduces each team as they prepare for the match. Both teams have many internal clashes between their disparate members. The middle of the story chronicles the festival itself, as the members' attempts to end racism and cultural misunderstanding only manage to increase it. Finally there is the match itself, in which the teams hash out their differences once and for all.

Back to Top

PASTIME

PASTIME

Mirimax Pictures, 1990


Written as a tribute to the game of baseball as it's played in small-town ballparks, Pastime tells the story of a forty-one year old pitcher at the end of his career. Set in 1957 in the Central California League, the film follows the Tri-City Steamers, a second rate minor league team experiencing yet another lackluster season. Roy Dean (William Russ), still dreaming of his one brief moment in the majors (when Stan Musial hit a grand-slam off of him), befriends a team newcomer, the young insecure black pitcher Tyrone Debray (Glenn Plummer) and passes on to him all he knows about the game.

Facing retirement, his mentoring of Tyrone is his best way of giving back all that baseball has given to him. Though sentimental and cliché-ridden, Pastime took home the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival under its original title,One Cup of Coffee.

Back to Top

BO KNOWS BO: THE BO JACKSON STORY

BO KNOWS BO: THE BO JACKSON STORY

CBS / Fox / Nike, 1991


Bo Jackson, the best of only a handful of athletes ever to play in two sports at the professional level, is the subject of this sports documentary. Produced by Nike Sports Entertainment entirely to capitalize on Jackson's marketing potential as a top player in both professional football and baseball, as well as expanding on the "Bo knows" ad tagline that made the Nike shoe campaign a classic in advertising annals.

A Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn University in 1985, Jackson was the first player to be selected in the 1986 college draft, but he spurned an offer from the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and opted instead to sign a professional-league baseball contract with the Kansas City Royals. Strictly a baseball player for one season, Jackson stunned the sports world in 1987 by signing a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL, announcing that he intended to play pro football in the fall while continuing to play baseball in the spring and summer. In 1991, he injured his hip in an NFL playoff game, requiring him to undergo replacement surgery. It was that injury that led to the end his football career.

After an attempt to return to baseball with the Chicago White Sox, he retired midway through the 1994 season during the player's strike.

Back to Top

COOL RUNNINGS

COOL RUNNINGS

Walt Disney, 1993


Cool Runnings is based on the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team, that wowed the audience and the officials as beloved underdogs in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Piloted by four Olympian wannabes who decide to go for the gold with a sport that their country is obviously unknown for, or even familiar with, the film stars Leon, Doug E. Doug, Rawle E. Lewis, and Malik Yoba. Dawn Steel, who was head of Columbia Pictures, fell in love with the idea when Jeff Sagansky at Tri-Star, a subsidiary, bought the rights in 1989. "To me it was 'Rocky,' "she says. "I love stories about underdogs. When Ms. Steel lost her job at the studio and joined the Walt Disney Studios as a producer a few months later, Cool Runnings, a typical inoffensive Disney family film, was one of the first projects she acquired.

Back to Top

HOOP DREAMS

HOOP DREAMS

New Line Cinema, 1994


A documentary filmed by Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, who spent five years, 250 hours of footage, and an estimated $750,000 to film the aspirations of two African-American14-year-old basketball prospects from the inner city schoolyards of Chicago.

Hoop Dreams follows the parallel lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, from eighth grade through high school, as they go through trials and triumphs, successes and setbacks both on and off the court. More than just a sports film, it is as much about human relations and racial discrimination as it is about basketball. The film won awards from the Sundance film festival, The Directors Guild of America, The New York Film Critics Circle, and an Academy Award for best editing.

Back to Top

FOREMAN

FOREMAN

Home Box Office, 1995


Professional boxer, ordained Minister and TV pitchman, George Foreman started his rise to fame at the age of 19 when at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, he won the gold medal in the heavyweight class. The following year, he turned professional. During a 1973 historic bout in Kingston, Jamaica (HBO's first-ever boxing telecast) Foreman captured his first heavyweight championship title by knocking out 'Smokin' Joe Frazier in the second round. The following year, Foreman signed an unprecedented $5 million contract to fight Muhammad Ali in Zaire, Africa.

Famously billed as the "Rumble in the Jungle," Ali rope-a-doped Foreman in the eighth round, causing one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. In 1977, Foreman experienced a religious awakening and retired from boxing to become an ordained minister for the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1987, Foreman ended his 10-year absence from the ring by winning the first of what would be 24 straight comeback fights.

As a contender for the championship title against Evander Holyfield in 1991, the 40-year-old Foreman lost the bout by decision, but gained a wealth of respect from the boxing industry for his remarkable comeback. In 1994, before a crowd of 19,000 fans in Las Vegas Foreman, at the tender age of 45, recaptured the heavyweight crown against 26-year-old Michael Moorer. To date, Foreman holds the notable distinction of being the oldest heavyweight boxing champion in history.

Back to Top

THE FAN

THE FAN

Mandalay Entertainment/Tri Star Pictures, 1996


The San Francisco Giants have just spent $40 million to acquire Atlanta Braves outfielder Bobby Rayburn, whose .310 lifetime batting average has helped make him a three-time National League MVP. No one applauds more than Gil Renard, a loyal, worshiping, die-hard fan thrilled by the signing of his hero to his hometown team. Robert Deniro (in another of his trademark psychotic roles) plays Renard, a man whose life is increasingly in shambles. With a job as a hunting knife salesman in limbo, a bitter ex-wife bent on custody of their son, his world is in a spiral and the only thing that holds him together is that most American of religions, baseball.

Following an opening day injury, and the loss of his good-luck jersey number 11 to a rival teammate, Rayburn (played by Wesley Snipes) goes into a seemingly irreversible batting slump. Renard feels that there is a connection between them and takes it upon himself to restore his hero to his former glory by any means necessary.

Obsessed, he crosses the line from "fan" to "stalker." Based on the novel by Peter Abrahams, The Fan is much more than just a taut psychological thriller set to the world of professional sports. It is also an indictment of egotistical millionaire professional athletes, and at the same time takes a sharp poke at those fanatics who simply take the game too seriously.

Back to Top

REBOUND

REBOUND

Home Box Office, 1996


An inspirational docu-drama, directed by Eriq La Salle and starring Don Cheadle, is the true story of Earl "The Goat" Manigault, the New York City playground basketball legend who was a heroin addict and never made it to the NBA. With his phenomenal athletic ability, the 6-foot-1 Manigault could snatch quarters off the top of backboards, and "double dunk" a ball in mid-air.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had a small role in the film, said he was the best he'd ever seen. Although his court talents were squandered, Manigault redeemed himself by devoting his time to the children of his Harlem community and teaching the game.

Back to Top

SPACE JAM

SPACE JAM

Warner Bros., 1996


He has a household name and his legendary performance on the basketball court is the epitome of grace under pressure, courage, persistence and the highest level of sportsmanship. Michael Jordan is not only the top player of his era, but is quite possibly the best player ever to wear the uniform of an NBA team. A legend, Jordan added to his mystique with a totally unexpected retirement just before the 1993-94 season.

After a year spent playing minor league baseball, he authored yet another amazing chapter to his story by returning to the Chicago Bulls, with his basketball skills intact, late in 1994-95. By the end of the 1997-98 season, he had won a record 10th scoring title and led the Bulls to their sixth NBA championship of the 1990s. In an exercise in franchise exploitation, Warner Brothers paired the world's most famous (and marketable) athlete with some of history's most beloved cartoon characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Co.) and in the style of Disney's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, mashed them together into an animated live action intergalactic basketball comedy for both children and adults.

Back to Top

TYSON

TYSON

Home Box Office, 1995


This made-for-television biopic, based on Jose Torres' book Fire and Fear, tells the story of the tumultuous life of heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson. The movie follows the boxer (played by Michael Jai White) from his early New York youth as criminal offender all the way to his years as a national boxing celebrity. With the help of trainer Cus D'Amato (George C. Scott) who takes the young, unpolished boxer under his wing and into his home, where he runs a boarding house for fighters and the ever controversial promoter Don King (played by Paul Winfield), Tyson became the World Heavyweight Champion, only to lose it all and go to jail for a rape conviction.

Back to Top

DON KING - ONLY IN AMERICA

DON KING - ONLY IN AMERICA

Home Box Office, 1997


For his role in this unauthorized biographical drama tracing the rise of legendarily boxing promoter Don King, the greatest swindler and controversial deal-maker in professional sports, Ving Rhames snagged a Golden Globe for Best Actor. Based on the biography "Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King" by Jack Newfield, the film traces King's rise from petty hood and numbers runner to incarcerated killer to the king of the sporting world.

Rhames is supported by a fine cast of actors including Darius McCrary (TV's Urkel) as Muhammad Ali, former New York Giants linebacker Jarrod Bunch as a young George Foreman, and Bernie Mac as Bundini Brown, one of Ali's cornermen. Rhames' Golden Globe acceptance speech in 1998 was especially memorable when he insisted that he wasn't worthy and unexpectedly asked that the award be given to his hero, the late Jack Lemmon, whom he had beaten, and who deserved the prize instead.

Back to Top

REGGIES PRAYER

REGGIES PRAYER

Arrow Release, 1996


Arguably the greatest defensive end in the history of football, Green Bay Packer Reggie White bankrolled, produced, and starred in this uplifting message film targeted to the problems of inner-city youth. He plays a thinly disguised version of himself, Reggie Knox, a future hall-of-fame football player who suddenly retires to take a job as a coach at a troubled high school.

Through his inspired coaching, Reggie proves that there is more to being a hero than winning a game. Roosevelt Grier, the 1960s Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman who, like White, is a minister in real life, also appears in the film.

Back to Top

HE GOT GAME

HE GOT GAME

Touchstone, 1998


A basketball court is only an arena for a larger, deeper drama in this Spike Lee directed hommage to hoops in which he teams up for the 3rd time with actor Denzel Washington. NBA superstar Ray Allen (of the Milwaukee Bucks) co-stars as Washington's son, the top-ranked high-school basketball player in the country who is being courted by college recruiters.

Added to the film's cast are a number of veteran supporting performers; Zelda Harris (Crooklyn), Rosario Dawson (Men in Black 2), Bill Nunn (Always Outnumbered), Hill Harper (The Visit)and Lonette McKee (Men of Honor) and with cameos from the likes of Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Reggie Miller.

Back to Top

THE HURRICANE

THE HURRICANE

Universal Pictures, 1999


The true-life story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, an up-and-coming boxer who is framed for a murder he didn't commit. Carter, played by Denzel Washington, spent the next two decades fighting to prove his innocence and overturn the wrongful conviction. During his stay in prison, his plight drew the attention of celebrities such as Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, whose tribute song resonates throughout the film. Despite this support, Carter remained imprisoned. Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a 13-year-old boy from Brooklyn inspired by Carter's autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, took up the cause to free his jailed mentor and hero. With the help of Martin's adopted guardians, they pushed the Federal District Court of New Jersey to reinvestigate the case.

After several years, the court overturned Carter's conviction and in 1985 released him from prison. For his role, Washington received a Golden Globe Award and a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Back to Top

ON THE ROPES

ON THE ROPES

Fox Lorber, 1999


Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's documentary about the dreams and hopes of three young aspiring boxers (two men and a woman), from Brooklyn's gritty Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and the coach who trains them for the 1996 Golden Gloves championships. A Sundance Film Festival award winner and Academy Award nominee for the Feature Documentary category, the film raises provocative issues about class and race within sports world and how each character confronts the forces beyond their control.

Back to Top

LEROY SATCHEL PAIGE

LEROY SATCHEL PAIGE

ESPN, 2000


Baseball great Leroy Robert "Satchel" Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama on July 7, 1906. Initially barred from Major League Baseball because he was African American, in the mid-1920s Paige became a professional player with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Baseball League. For the next two decades, he showcased his skills by "barnstorming" across the country (pitching for any team willing to meet his price) and baffled hitters with creatively named pitches such as the "Bat Dodger" and "Hesitation Pitch." His reputation was legendary. In 1942, he led the Kansas City Monarchs to victory in the Negro World Series. At age 42, Paige finally got his chance to become the first black pitcher in the American League when he was signed to the Cleveland Indians in 1948 (one year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors) and helped them win the pennant race against the Chicago White Sox.

Paige maintained a successful career in both minor and Major League Baseball, despite his advanced age. He later played with the St. Louis Browns and made his final appearance in 1965 pitching for the Kansas City Athletics. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971 and died in Kansas City, Missouri on June 8, 1982.

Back to Top

LOVE & BASKETBALL

LOVE & BASKETBALL

New Line Cinema, 2000


Gina Prince-Bythewood, Emmy-winning TV writer for A Different World and Felicity writes and directs her feature film debut about two young athletes from an upper middle-class African-American neighborhood of Los Angeles. Love &Basketball is set against the rivalry and mutual attraction of Monica (Sanaa Lathan), and her neighbor, Quincy (Omar Epps). Basketball, however, is only a vehicle for this love story.

An exceptional athlete as a youth, Bythewood is well aware of the stereotype of the black athlete. Like her talented heroine, sports were Bythewood's life. "One of the things I wanted to attack was the stigma attached to female athletes, that you can't be strong AND feminine," she said. The film divides into four quarters, as in a basketball game, and tracks Monica's life from a talented 12-year-old to an adult who achieves her life-long dream of playing professionally. Lathan, who had never picked up a basketball before, endured a five-month training session just to be able to do lay-ups and shoot like a pro.

Love & Basketball premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, where it won The Humanitas Prize. Other awards in several categories include The Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, The BET Award, The Black Reel Award, and The NAACP Image Award.

Back to Top

MICHAEL JORDAN TO THE MAX

MICHAEL JORDAN TO THE MAX

Imax, 2000


The greatest professional basketball player of his generation, and maybe all time, Michael Jordan, is the subject of this 45-minute, high definition Imax film. Financed in part by mvp.com, an Internet company that Jordan helped to found, the film weaves his early youth in North Carolina with his sixth and final 1999 NBA championship play-offs for the Chicago Bulls and his successful off-court careers in business and advertising.

Back to Top

SOUL OF THE GAME

SOUL OF THE GAME

Home Box Office, 2000


In 1945, three of the world's greatest baseball players met on a field in Kansas City; legendary pitcher Satchel Paige (Delroy Lindo), catcher Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson) and rookie Jackie Robinson (Blair Underwood). Brooklyn Dodger scouts observing from the stands narrowed their choice down to one who would become the first player of the Negro League to make it to the big leagues and break the color barrier on America's favorite pastime.

To the fans, it was really no contest, Jackie Robinson had no experience, and Gibson and Paige had sewn up the league between the two of them. Hands down, they were the best in the business, black or white. However, the best don't always get the recognition they deserve and such is at the heart of, the Soul of the Game.

Back to Top

ALI

ALI

Columbia Pictures, 2001


Muhammad Ali, the most recognizable man of the 20th century, is one of those rare people to become immortal in his own lifetime. He is included among the ranks of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis and is perhaps the greatest boxer in history. Cassius Clay was born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, at a time when being black and poor meant almost no prospects for economic advancement. However, the young Clay became lucky at age twelve when a local cop gave him boxing lessons so he could protect his bicycle from bullies. By age eighteen he won six Kentucky Golden Glove competitions and a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics.

Ali stars Will Smith as the loud-mouthed kid who boldly announces early and often in his career that he is "the greatest," and proceeds to back up that claim in the ring. Smith trained nearly a year, bulking up 35 pounds in the transformation process. The film spans the pivotal decade of Ali's life beginning in 1964, as Cassius Clay, when he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, and ending in1974, as Muhammad Ali, when he reclaimed his title from George Foreman in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire. Within those years, the film recounts Ali's conversion to Islam, his refusal to serve in the Army (stripping him of his title), and the endless court battle he waged to be able to win that title back. More than any other athlete, Ali was unique in that his life was not just about boxing, but about a rebellious and charismatic black man who dared to triumph in American society without compromise.

Back to Top

HARD KNOCKS

HARD KNOCKS

HBO Films, 2001


HBO Sports, in association with NFL Films and the Dallas Cowboys, provided an all-access look at what it takes to make it in the National Football League. The Cowboys' tradition of open access with the media and fans alike is often noted as the foundation for their enormous popularity. The hour-long segments which aired over a six-week period, focused on the players' and coaches' daily lives and routines (including owner Jerry Jones meetings) as they prepared for their 2002 NFL Season. The documentary features head coach Dave Campo and a mix of veteran players including Emmett Smith and rookie hopefuls like Quincy Carter (replacing retired quarterback Troy Aikman) throughout summer training camp and the preseason schedule.

Back to Top

HARDBALL

HARDBALL

Paramount Pictures, 2001


In another Hollywood triumph of the underdog tale, an addicted gambler finds redemption by coaching an inner city junior baseball team. Conor O'Neill (Keanu Reeves),who owes $11,000 to a couple of demanding bookies, tries to borrow money from an investment banker pal to pay the debt. But to earn his moral salvation, he must agree to coach a Little League team, the Kekambas, for $500.00 per week. The team's unruly assortment of wisecracking foul-mouthed young players who live in fear and squalor at Chicago's Cabrini Green housing projects, amidst violence, predictably, switch his perspective on life.

Hardball is more Bad News Bears in the Hood than the typical heartwarming sports movie but despite the film's dark side the story is primarily an uplifting experience about kids and baseball, hope and dreams.

Back to Top

JIM BROWN ALL AMERICAN

JIM BROWN ALL AMERICAN

Home Box Office, 2002


Spike Lee's documentary homage to the legendary football running back, actor and activist, Jim Brown, pulls no punches in examining both the triumphs and the controversies of Brown's career. From gridiron clips of the awe-inspiring Hall of Fame Cleveland Browns fullback to blaxploitation movie star embraced by Hollywood as the first significant black male icon and macho sex (Slaughter, 100 Rifles, Three the Hard Way) to a private life marked by assault charges, lawsuits and messy divorces. Blending archival footage with interviews, including former coach (Ed Walsh), teammates (Paul Warfield), and co-stars (Raquel Welch), among others, Lee presents a compelling, if not sentimental, tribute to one of Black America's most notorious and charismatic cultural icons.

Back to Top

MR. 3000

MR. 3000

Touchstone Pictures, 2004


Stand-up comedian and sitcom television star Bernie Mac learns how to take a heaping helping of humble pie in his first outing as a silver-screen leading man. Mac plays Stan Ross, an arrogant self-centered first baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers who after notching his immortalizing 3000th hit, snatches the ball from a little kid in the stands and then retires on the spot, selfishly leaving his teammates in the middle of a pennant race.

Confident that his selection into the Baseball Hall of Fame is guaranteed, he waits for Cooperstown to call. But the bridges that he's burned come back to haunt him. Nine years later, and still waiting, things get worse for Ross when a review of his career stats reveals an error and that he is in fact, three base hits shy of his milestone. Out of shape and over the hill, he decides to pull the baseball equivalent of a George Foreman by coming out of retirement and returning to his former team in order to record the hits that, in his mind, will cement his induction. It's a wake-up call, but for Ross, it isn't an easy road. In time, hindsight and maturity help redeem him and make the most of this second chance at leaving a more honorable legacy.

Back to Top

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS

Florentine Films, 2004


Before Muhammad Ali, there was Joe Louis; and before Joe Louis there was Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, the son of two ex-slaves, Johnson began boxing as a teenager in the Jim Crow-era South. By 1902, Jackson had won at least 27 matches and was making as much as $1,000 per bout. At the turn of the 20th century, though boxing was less segregated than other sports, it was still a time when the very structure of society was designed to deny blacks opportunity. It wasn't until 1908, that a black boxer was even allowed to contend for a heavyweight championship, when white titleholder Tommy Burns, for an exorbitant sum of money, agreed to meet Johnson in the ring.

At the end of 14 rounds, Johnson emerged as champion. White America was devastated. In the year following,Johnson defended his title five times against the best white challengers resulting in an outcry for a "Great White Hope" to come and win back the title and it took 18 months, to lure former unbeaten heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries out of retirement. The public quickly came to view the fight as a racial test, and ultimately it attracted more attention than any sporting event until then.

The bout, dubbed the "Battle Of The Century", occurred on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round, sparking a nationwide uproar and race riots in more than a dozen cities. Johnson was a black champion in a sport ruled by whites. Flamboyant, arrogant and self-indulgent, he refused to be a second class citizen and rebelled against the conventions of a segregated society.

Perhaps more troubling than Johnson's dominance over his white opponents were his very public interracial relationships that were considered offensive in post Victorian America. In 1913, the US government perverted the legal system to make Johnson pay for his lifestyle and his success and he was convicted of violating the Mann Act which outlawed the interstate transport of women "for any immoral purpose." When the all-white jury predictably voted guilty, Johnson fled the country and remained a champion "in exile" until he lost a 1915 bout in Havana, Cuba in the 26th round by Jess Willard. He returned to the US in 1920, surrendered to authorities and served a year in prison.

He was never again given a shot at the heavyweight title. Johnson died in an automobile accident in 1946 at age 68. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, is a PBS documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz), shows the gritty details of Johnson's life through archival footage, still photographs, and the commentary of boxing experts such as Stanley Crouch, Bert Sugar, George Plimpton, Jack Newfield, Gerald Early and James Earl Jones, who portrayed Johnson in the Broadway play and film based on Johnson's life, The Great White Hope.

Back to Top

RING OF FIRE: THE EMILE GRIFFITH STORY

RING OF FIRE: THE EMILE GRIFFITH STORY

USA Network, 2005


The makers of Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story tackle the issues, controversy and lingering effects of one of the most famous deaths in the sport of boxing. The death of Benny "Kid" Paret at the lightning-fast hands of Emile Griffith touches on themes ranging from violence in sports and the cult of machismo to media sensationalism, the role of fate and forgiveness and the taboo of homosexuality in virtually all sports.

While looking at these issues, producers- directors Dan Klores and Ron Berger also create a profound portrait of a man haunted by a single moment in his otherwise glamorous past. On March 24, 1962, a national TV audience looked on in horror as challenger Griffith caught welterweight champ Paret, exhausted in the 12th round of their fight in Madison Square Garden, in a lonesome corner. In a pummeling that lasted only seconds, Griffith knocked Paret senseless. He lapsed into a coma and died 10 days later. It was the first live death on in network television history. The sport was taken off the air for ten years.

Back to Top