On the heels of news that he’s in development on a Nat Turner film starring Blair Underwood (published on this blog earlier this week), comes word that Bill Duke is also prepping a project on boxer Joe Louis.
Duke has teamed up with producers Gil Adler and Joel Eisenberg, inking a deal with holders of rights to Lewis’ story (Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo of Kirmser Ponturo Group) that will see Duke co-produce and direct the film, which will focus on Louis’ historic two fights with German boxer Max Schmeling.
In the summer of 2014, Fran Kirmser and her producing partner Tony Ponturo (the producing team behind recent sports-related Broadway shows – like "Lombardi," about the Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, and "Magic/Bird," about the friendship between basketball legends Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird) acquired exclusive global, theatrical and movie rights to boxing great Joe Louis’ life story. But no specifics on any planned projects, whether for the stage of for screen, were announced at that time. So this will be the first deal that I’m aware of.
You will also recall that Spike Lee had long been working with the late screenwriter Budd Schulberg on a film about boxer Joe Louis when the writer passed away – a project that was announced about a decade prior, and which Lee has never been able to make.
“I miss my dear friend Budd Schulberg… We got along great, and I promised him that I would get our project ‘Save Us, Joe Louis’ made and I will make good on that promise,” Lee said after Schulberg’s death in 2009.
Given today’s news, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
Spike’s film was to focus on the life and times of the heavyweight champ, a project he was reportedly set to shoot the summer after the project was initially announced, in 2000, after famously losing out to Michael Mann for the job of directing Warner Bros’ Muhammad Ali biopic, which starred Will Smith.
Lee had acquired the rights to Louis’ life story from the late champ’s son, the aforementioned Joe Louis Barrow Jr, and was developing the script in tandem with boxing expert Bert Randolph Sugar and sceenwriting legend Schulberg. It was to focus on the political implications of Louis’ reign as heavyweight champ, with particular focus on his two battles with Schmeling in 1936 and 1938. Lee planned to concentrate on the symbolic roles that both men played – Louis, a hero for Black Americans in then a segregated America, and Schmeling, touted by Hitler as the ultimate Nazi fighting machine.
"The hook is the relationship – as adversaries, as political tools, as opponents in the ring, and as friends – between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, and the arc of their lives. They engaged in perhaps the greatest two minutes of sports and warfare of the entire 20th century, symbolically speaking," Lee said.
After last year’s announcement that rights had been picked up by Kirmser/Ponturo, I wondered whether the duo would consider Spike as director of any feature film they decide to make on Louis’ life; I wondered whether they would then get behind "Save Us, Joe Lewis."
That’s not happening.
This would be the 4th biopic on the life of a prominent African American figure that Lee has wanted to make, but couldn’t (usually because of no financial backing), and that would go on to be directed by others – in each case, a white male director (James Brown, and Jackie Robinson are the other 2, in addition to Ali); although Bill Duke is African American, so maybe that softens the blow a bit. But I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to watch dream projects fall into the hands of others.
Variety was first to report the news of Bill Duke’s attachment.