Filmmaker draws lessons from African American history

Muhammad Ali in March 1971

LAWRENCE – With the 2019 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on “BlacKkKlansman” on his mantel, Kevin Willmott can focus on the screenwriting projects he likes. And while the University of Kansas professor of film & media studies has carved out a niche telling little-known stories of African American history that resonate with current events, Willmott’s latest project takes a fresh look at perhaps the most famous African American and most popular athlete of all time – boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

The producers (Willmott shares executive-producing credit) have announced a deal to develop the eight-part series “Excellence: 8 Fights” about Ali's life for NBC’s Peacock streaming video service.

Kevin Willmott

Willmott said he had been working with actor/producer Morgan Freeman’s Revelations Entertainment, which owns the rights to Jonathan Eig’s acclaimed 2017 biography, “Ali: A Life," for some time on a script. No star or release date has been announced.

“I chose eight different fights Ali had, using the book as my source material,” Willmott said. “They’re not all bouts in the ring. One of them will be his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.”

Apart from the Will Smith film “Ali” in 2001, Willmott said there have not been many treatments of the heavyweight champion and global cultural icon’s life on film. 2020’s “One Night in Miami” focuses on just that – a single meeting among Ali, football and movie star Jim Brown, singer/producer Sam Cooke and Black Muslim leader Malcolm X.

Willmott said “8 Fights” will be a modern biopic.

“The old style is cradle-to-grave,” he said. “Now you try to be a lot more selective and pick certain parts of their life.”

The fact that Ali remains so well-known, nearly seven years after his death, will enable the filmmakers to use a certain shorthand in explication, Willmott said. “He’s got a big life, and the segments narrow it down to specific things.”

“8 Fights” will delve into Ali’s complicated relationship with his greatest ring nemesis, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, if only for its racial implications, Willmott said.

Despite the fact that Frazier had loaned Ali money when Ali was facing fallout from his decision to avoid the Vietnam-era draft, in the buildup to their fights, “Ali called him Uncle Tom and monkey,” Willmott said.

“There was a love-hate relationship – hatred from Joe Frazier’s standpoint. Ali didn’t hate anybody. He got angry at people like Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell that wouldn’t call him by the name Muhammad Ali, and he punished them in the ring. Ali was a bit ahead of the game in terms of the Black pride movement. It was about starting to connect to our African heritage.

“The series will allow Ali to look back on his life and reflect on the pros and cons,” Willmott said.

Willmott said he has several other writing irons in the fire, all based on historical events, including a completed script for a biopic of the first Black tennis star, Arthur Ashe, and one about the relationship between jazz musicians Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington and Lena Horne.

Image: Muhammad Ali in March 1971, in the wake of his loss to Joe Frazier. Credit: AP Wirephoto, via WikiCommons.

Thu, 03/23/2023


Rick Hellman

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Rick Hellman

KU News Service