EXCLUSIVE: Director Lenny Abrahamson and producer Ed Guiney, the team behind the Oscar-season film Room, will make a movie of the life of Emile Griffith. He’s the boxer who won world titles in two weight classes but is best remembered for beating to death Benny “The Kid” Paret in the ring during a live nationwide TV broadcast. The vicious incident occurred after Paret grabbed the buttock of his opponent and called him a homosexual at the weigh-in. Fact is, Griffith led a secret life as a bisexual man, but in 1962, such a thing was taboo and most especially in the macho culture of boxing.
Abrahamson and Guiney’s Element Pictures have teamed with Film4 to option the Donald McRae book A Man’s World: The Double Life Of Emile Griffith. Numerous filmmakers chased the book, and while he has other projects percolating, Abrahamson intends to adapt it with a co-writer and direct the film as soon as possible. The book was published in the UK by Simon & Schuster. Abrahamson is in Los Angeles this week promoting Room, the dark drama that has gotten reviews as good as any awards-season film this fall and which A24 opens November 16 limited, and wide on November 25.
“It is so rich that it’s hard to know where to start,” Abrahamson told Deadline in confirming the deal. “As a character study, Griffith is incredibly compelling. There was a gentleness and innocence about him, and he never seemed conflicted about his sexuality; indeed he found joy in it. He inhabited two worlds — the underground gay scene in New York in the ’60s and the macho world of boxing. The societal stigma at that time was dreadful and created a crushing pressure on him.”
Griffith grew up poor in the Virgin Islands and worked in the garment district until he took his shirt off and was discovered by a boxing veteran. His natural athleticism fueled a fast rise, and within a couple of years, Griffith became a Golden Gloves sensation and fought his way to a title with a victory over Paret in the first fight between them. Griffith used the money to bring siblings to the U.S., but that immigrant rags-to-riches story took a tragic turn in his final bout with Paret, a Cuban fighter who, in a room full of press, called Griffith “Maricon.” That is about the worst thing one Latino fighter could call another. Griffith was enraged.
When they fought in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis hung in the backdrop, but the real tension between the fighters didn’t really come out until later. The brawl was broadcast live on ABC’s Friday Night Fights. Even though many felt in hindsight that Paret should not have been permitted back in the ring so fast after absorbing a beating in his previous fight, the match was close, until the 12th round. Paret slumped against the ropes, and by the time Griffith was done and the ref finally stepped in, Paret was hit by a reported 24 unanswered blows. Paret slumped to the canvas and never regained consciousness; he died after 10 days in a coma.
Griffith, and boxing, were vilified. Griffith would continue fighting, but was never quite the same. Late in his life, he was beaten by five teens with one baseball bat while coming out of a gay club. He died several years ago of dementia. The film is the collision of a sweet-natured man, a macho sport and a repressive period. That is what caught Abrahamson, who also directed the Michael Fassbender starrer Frank.
“You look at how closely his two worlds intersected,” Abrahamson said. “Just how different are they, when the sport is such a celebration of the male body and the beauty of its athleticism. Go one step further, and inject the tiniest sense of sexuality, and people are up in arms. Griffith himself once said a quote that just floored me. ‘They forgave me for killing a man, but they couldn’t forgive me for loving a man.’ That to me was so powerful and such a crazy contradiction. And it is still relevant today.”
Griffith’s story was previously the subject of Ring Of Fire, an acclaimed documentary directed by Dan Klores.
Guiney said that the option and development money was provided by UK-based Film4, their partner in both Room, and The Lobster. Camilla Young brokered the deal for Curtis Brown with Element’s Mark Byrne. Andrew Lowe will shepherd it for Element with Rosanne Flynn and Emma Norton after Flynn brought it to the attention of Abramson and Guiney.