by DscribeDC

Based on Jack Newfield's Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King, Jack Herzfeld's new HBO docudrama Don King: Only in America shows us this generation's splendiferously-coiffured, extravaliciously-eloquent and undeniably-scandalous Barnum in all his blowout-comb-flicking, dashiki-wearing, Cuban-cigar-puffing glory.

Given HBO's rather acrimonious breakup with Promoter #1, a cynical viewer might have expected the network to do a total hatchet job on King. Well, this writer does not know the inside-baseball on this one, but the flick's structure is ingeniously crafted with not only Cahiers du Cinema, but also The American Lawyer in mind.

Herzfeld balances his presentation of the more controversial material with a device as post-modern and deconstructionalist as it is safe. Whenever we get to a rocky section of Don's rise to the top of the mountain, the film presents two versions: a strictly cinematic depiction and a feverish monologue by The Man himself, addressing the camera from inside a metaphorical boxing ring. Ving Rhames, showing an admirable amount of restraint and understatement (he seems somewhat calmer and less comically bombastic than the real article), rails against HBO, white promoters, the sports media, the black Muslims and every other perceived detractor, simultaneously debunking and adding credence to HBO's dramatic scenarios. It's a device that Quentin Tarantino and Greta Van Susteren could both agree on. And it's done entertainingly, too, King oo-la-la-ing at a Parisian cafe while discussing the negotiations leading up to the Rumble in the Jungle, ripping to shreds a newspaper discussing Ali's suit against him, etc. Only in America does not sacrifice entertainment value on the altar of legal blandness. I'm guessing Don would have wanted it that way.

The centerpiece of all this is Rhames' performance, and the star of Pulp Fiction and Rosewood does himself proud in a role over which African-American actors from coast to coast must have been salivating. Rhames gets most of the hamminess and the broad comedy down, and even manages to launch some of King's famous malaprops ("I don't use any hair products or conditioners. It's all naturale...") with the straight-faced gravity of a man who knows that his comic turns of phrase are a means to a very serious end. But King has a somber side, too, as anyone who observed the darkly magnetic sermonettes on racial politics in the Ali-Foreman documentary When We Were Kings can well attest. Rhames hits his marks here, too. He does not take one step back from the violence, the shady connections, the avarice, or backhanded dealing that lay beneath King's accomplishments, and, while Rhames spreads the race-baiting and false-brotherhood pretty thickly, beneath it all there is a believable current of underclass frustration and bitterness. And, miracle of miracles, Ving manages to convincingly convey the pathos of King's uphill climb, as in a moving father-son scene after Muhammad Ali turns his back on the promoter to return to his Muslim backers. Good God y'all, could it be...empathy...that I'm feeling?

The supporting performances here don't add much lustre to the jewel. The actors portraying the fighters, with the exception of Danny Johnson's glowering, combustible Larry Holmes, seem to have been chosen mostly for their physical resemblance to the athletes they portray. (Darius McCrary adequately mimics some of Muhammad Ali's pre-fight clowning, but is hardly up to the task of filling in his complexities.) Jeremy Piven, (Ellen's Spence) as early business partner Hank Schwartz ("the Israelite of the satellite"), is mostly there to be the foil for King's semi-ethical street-level business practices. Of the real boxing guys, perhaps only veteran promoter Don Elbaum acquits himself credibly. Teddy Atlas, making his film debut as trainer Richie Giachetti, remains, well, a great corner man. And you'll never find/as long as you live/...a performance as stiff as Lou Rawls'.

For a film at least secondarily about boxing, the fight material is pretty cavalierly handled. The boxing scenes seem like stiff, staged ballet, overly-choreographed to stylistically replicate the movements of the original bouts (Joe Frazier's one-knee bounce on the canvas vs. George Foreman, Foreman's felled-redwood topple vs. Ali) without their visceral ferocity. I had to laugh when Ali and Frazier stagger back to their corners after fateful Round 14 of The Thrilla in Manilla (one of history's hottest bouts) without a drop of sweat on them. And where was the hideous swelling on Mike Tyson at the time of the Buster Douglas knockout? The boxing is incidental to the story of King's rise and rise, but if the producers are going to go to the trouble of hiring Canadian Olympian Everton Davis to play Evander Holyfield, couldn't they at least spell the name of Earnie Shavers (whose character gets a speaking part) correctly?

Doubtless, a favorite parlor game among King-watchers will be trainspotting the film for factual inaccuracies or omissions. The screenplay alludes to, but glosses over, King's battles with the Feds, most likely because grand juries and court pleadings make for pretty dull cinema. A wise choice. But did King really stand up to Mobutu Sese Seko and demand that his lethal pre-Rumble purge of Kinshasan criminals be stopped? Doesn't gutsy but limited heavyweight Chuck Wepner deserve a little better than to be treated as nothing more than a mob leg-breaker? What about King's legal battles with the completely-omitted Tim Witherspoon? The famously-contentious wrangling over Julio Cesar Chavez? The disastrous ABC heavyweight tournament of the late 1970s? And just how did Lloyd Price end up in hot water over the rock festival accompanying the Rumble in the Jungle? Herzfeld includes a scene with a supercilious Liberian government minister, seemingly so that we can see King throw Bloody Mary on the dandy's white suit, without really ever explaining just who is on the hook for the concert expenses...

The telescoping of Only in America makes much of the pre-Tyson years, but isn't it Mike Tyson that, more than any other fighter, has defined King's career? Herzfeld should have given him his rightful place in the story or omitted him altogether. As it is, we only get a few seconds of melee-montage as Tyson claws his way to his original title. There is nothing at all about how King wrested control of Iron Mike from his previous management, nothing about the pivotal bout against Michael Spinks. We see the Douglas KO without a word about how King and WBC head Jose Sulaiman tried to screw Douglas out of his title belts. Even the Desiree Washington rape incident is whitewashed in the passive voice ("Mike got arrested for rape..."). All in all, Mike's career, which made King richer than that of any other DK fighter, gets less screen time than Lloyd Price's musical numbers.

One gets the sense that HBO is just too close to Don King's subject matter to do it full historical justice. The real movie will have to be made 20 or 30 years hence, when all the principals are deceased and the historical record can truly be set straight with the benefit of some critical distance.

The video King is a ruthless businessman battling a white society he believes is out to bring him tumbling down to his knees. "If I didn't exist," he claims at one point, summing up his success, "you would have had to invent me." Unfortunately, as this portrait of a tortured and paranoid Hustler Who Made It makes crystal clear, the same could be said to King by his closetful of racial demons and boogeymen.

Let's face it, like any major nation, America has had its share of post-Watergate anti-heroes. Though they might prop Ollie North up for a Senate run or choreograph artsy downtown dance pieces about how former Drexel maven Michael Milken "democratized capital," most of these characters have been pretty drab, hardly the stuff of tall tales and urban legends. Outside of the far-right crazies, not many people lionize North, and Milken is hardly a household name outside of business schools and federal courthouses. How many of our modern-day grifters will ever make it into American folklore? Even if the worst they say about King is true, he is a uniquely American flim-flam man, a false preacher who is able to hypnotize us into catalepsy while picking our pockets, to use flamboyant revival-tent style and centuries-old racial invective to put himself on the front pages and to put his enemies on the defensive. He may be a con man, but he's our con man. And we're still buying.

Don King's career has, as Rhames puts it, "historical ramaffiliations." A pretty good argument could be made for sports hitting a peak in America in the years between Ali-Foreman in 1974 and the U.S. gold-medal hockey effort at Lake Placid in 1980. Carlton Fisk's homerun highlighted a 1975 World Series that was baseball's high-water mark. The blue-collar dynasty of the Pittsburgh Steelers linked football with its smalltown working-class origins in a way that has never been equalled. Sports and America were in synch. And the rise of Don King to his place at the head of sports' banquet table (through his monopoly over heavyweight boxing) has neatly paralleled the decline of organized sports in this country from the embodiment of American competitive spirit to cutthroat, corrupt business operation.

In the end, Rhames' Don King is an enormously successful and influential, but an equally sad, figure, a man abandoned by his best friend Price, betrayed by Ali and his entourage, shunned by mainstream society, hated by the fighters whose careers he guides/misguides, projecting himself a combatant in a perpetual war with enemies real and imagined on every side. Don King is the man we love to hate, a man whose collapse we will shell out big bucks to watch on pay-per-view. Only in America leaves the biggest question raised by his career: is King a righteous brother in "the hope bi'ness" trying to get some the American Way, or a freebooter running a hustle on his own people? without the kind of cut-and-dried answer a Spike Lee might have eagerly offered. But the measure of Herzfeld's film is that he convinces his audience that the question really matters, and that Vegas might make a pretty even line on the outcome.

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11.17.97 [Return to Top]