By Jeremy Mathews | January 22, 2005

“Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story” fails at one of the most important elements of documentary filmmaking—capturing the personalities behind histories of which anyone who read a few books could explain the basics. Directors Ron Berger and Dan Klores, whose first collaboration was 2003’s “The Boys of 2nd Street Park”, have turned in a technically solid but ultimately dissatisfying movie. While its interesting history will engage those fascinated by the subject, there’s no getting around an unsure structure that leads to a manufactured modern-day resolution.

Six-time world welterweight boxing champion Emile Griffith was a great fighter who was rumored to be homosexual in one of the most masculine games in the manly field of athletics. But the defining feature of his life, as far as the lopsided film is concerned, is that he once punched rival Benny “The Kid” Paret so hard, fast and frequently that Paret eventually died from the injuries. The event and various people’s political moves are interesting, but the accident is over-inflated in what is supposed to be “the Emile Griffith story.” The greatest insight we have into his emotions is that he didn’t mean to do anything and feels very guilty.

While each individual sequence is polished with a professional, Ken Burns-style montage of talking heads, photos and archival footage, the work as a whole lacks focus. The movie doesn’t manage to make any cohesive statement about Griffith’s life. His homo—or perhaps bi—sexuality is mentioned but never really explored, nor are the implications it had in the boxing community beyond an insult the ill-fated Paret directed at him during a weigh-in.

“Ring of Fire” benefits from existing archival footage and the long slate of still-living people who experienced the story they now help tell. But it never fully realizes the promise these interview subjects present. In contrast to Ramona S. Diaz‘s “Imelda”, which played at Sundance last year and explored the personality of former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, there isn’t a great deal of interesting modern material with Griffith, perhaps because he has brain damage (ironically, not from a fight but from a recent mugging). Most of the older footage of him is in the ring, making the filmmakers reliant on thirdhand accounts, which say less and less about the man as time passes. Details in the beginning, like that Griffith didn’t want to box at first and “didn’t look like a fighter,” set up interest around his character that never pay off.

It’s impossible to tell whether Griffith was simply a dull person without much of a personality, or if the documentarians simply failed to translate it to the screen. But the resulting material won’t attract people beyond a specialized audience with interest in the subject.

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