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Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story
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by Scott Weinberg

"You ever hear the one about the gay boxing champ? Not like this you havent."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Just over a year ago I was pleasantly surprised by a great little documentary feature entitled "The Boys of Second Street Park". It was not a movie I really expected to fall for, since it was a nostalgic look back at a place I'd never been to, full of guys I'd never heard of. But there it was, sweet and funny and poignant all the same. Documentary filmmakers Ron Klores & Dan Berger are absolutely a pair to keep your eyes on, because after seeing their effortlessly fantastic "Ring of Fire," I think they may be the next big doco darlings.

Emile Griffith was a gentle giant. If you happened to match up against the guy in a boxing ring, the odds were pretty good that you'd be leaving that ring as a crumpled heap or bones and bruised cartilage. Emile was a great little American success story: a quiet and unassuming young man, Emile was introduced to the world of boxing because of his massive size and his admirable work ethic. Even before all the boxing experts knew his name, Emile Griffith was pounding opponents into submission on a regular basis.

Emile found a true nemesis in Benny "Kid" Paret, an animated little pugilist who survived through sheer force of energy. But then something ugly happened. Emile, you see, is a gay man. And back in 1962, a man's homosexuality was simply something you did NOT mention in a public forum. And Bernie did so in rather unflattering terms.

Benny and Emile battled for the welterweight title several times, but during their final bout together, Emile was understandably quite furious at Benny for calling him "maricon". (Let's just say it's a nasty way to refer to a gay man.) At the end of this last match, Benny was lying on the canvas in a crumpled heap. A few days later he would die from his injuries.

Sounds like a straightforward little tale of fury and revenge, right? Nah. Klores and Berger will leave the simple stuff to the "feature" filmmakers. Ring of Fire is absolutely swollen with tragedy and regret, with insight and integrity, with warmth, wit and fascinating fact.

Full of eyewitness interviews with the trainers and journalists of the day, not to mention most of the surviving principal players, and supported by archival footage of the tragic match itself, Ring of Fire is the finest sort of "education via cinema" that one could imagine. While it will undoubtedly prove to be a major treat for the boxing enthusiasts, Ring of Fire is about a whole lot more than just two men punching each other. It's about passion, pride, fury and regret. It's about the importance of tolerance and the power of forgiveness.

And it will most likely stand as one of this year's most commanding documentary films. It's absolutely one of the best at this year's Sundance Film Festival - and I can name at least five other truly excellent docs that I've seen up here.

It might seem that the moral here is "Don't call someone a nasty word because he could just end up beating you to death," but that's not the message you'll walk get from "Ring of Fire". This is a heartbreaking human interest story, a brilliantly mounted snapshot of boxing history, and a glowing celebration of one decent man's struggle with our society's omnipresent ignorance.

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originally posted: 02/01/05 07:51:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sydney Film Festival For more in the 2005 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/22/07 aaron king truely a must see film. If your a lover of the sweet science than you'll love this one. 5 stars
6/23/06 Eddie Wilgar Fascinating story, beautifully told. 5 stars
2/28/06 Clark Hallare Awesome film. I really enjoyed it 5 stars
8/19/05 Javier M. Beltran saw it on Spanish TV, Griffith regrets (we all do) the tragedy when we hurt people. 4 stars
6/12/05 Arthur Davie "One of the best documentaries ever filmed. Pure film poetry..Director Klores scores." 5 stars
4/22/05 Phil Avina This documentary of Emile Griffith brings humanity in perspective. It has it all and more. 5 stars
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