“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.”
Words from director Spike Lee after screenwriter Schulberg’s death in 2009. Lee had been working with Schulberg on a film about boxer Joe Louis when the writer passed away – a project that was announced some 9 years prior, and which Lee has never been able to make.
Might today’s news present that opportunity?
In brief, 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 – have acquired exclusive global, theatrical and movie rights to boxing great Joe Louis’ life story.
Fran Kirmser and her producing partner Tony Ponturo made the announcement via press release today. But no specifics on any planned projects, whether for the stage of for screen.
Spike’s film was to focus on the life and times of the heavyweight champ, a project he was said to be 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, Joe Louis Barrow Jr, and was developing the script in tandem with boxing expert Bert Randolph Sugar and sceenwriting legend Budd Schulberg. It was to focus on the political implications of Louis’ reign as heavyweight champ, with particular focus on his two battles with the German heavyweight Max 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.
Now that rights to Louis story officially no longer belong to Spike, what might that mean for "Save Us, Joe Louis"? Maybe the duo who now own the rights will consider Spike as director of any feature films they decide to make on Louis’ life. Maybe they’ll get behind "Save Us, Joe Lewis."
If not, then 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 and, now, possibly, Joe Louis). I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to watch dream projects fall into the hands of others… or should I say *others*.