May 5th, 2011.
A warm spring evening descended upon Manhattan’s west side, where I was intimately acquainted with one of the world’s greatest sports figures. As I entered the School of Visual Arts Theater lobby, I was greated by a warm smile and a hug from the Director of Photography, and also my college roomate, Quenell Jones. We rarely see each other these days, but when he sent me an invitation for the screening of When The Smoke Clears, I happily accepted.
Quenell is an all around class act who is an absolute pleasure to be around. He’s also very disciplined with a tremendous work ethic. I know this because he was my personal alarm clock throughout freshman year. While I was still squinting and struggling to come to terms with waking up for class, Quenell had already made his bed, was already showered, groomed and humming along to tunes from our radio. I’ve never known anyone more excited about tackling the day’s responsibilities. But its this kind of enthusiasm and love for one’s craft that contributes to the making of the most heartfelt documentary I’ve seen this year.
When The Smoke Clears is part boxing documentary, part history lesson, but more importantly, its a different look at the impact of one iconic athlete on his community in the inner city. With the successes of Joe Frazier, came Joe Frazier’s Gym. The gym was opened in Philadelphia, where Joe had eventually settled after migrating from his hometown in South Carolina. It was his way of giving back to the community that gave him the start to his famous career. And what a career it was. You know that Float-Like-A-Buttafly guy? Joe Frazier whooped his ass once. Ali vs. Frazier was the most watched sporting event in the world. In an era when most folks only had a black & white TV or perhaps only a radio, men like Frazier were gods who’s reputation endured for decades, not mere minutes as with today’s ultra-famous, ultra temporary internet stars.
Director Mike Todd & Quenell Jones take us on a two year journey during Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s twilight years, while following and speaking with family, acquaintances, and even former boxing legends George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. The film also follows the life of Isaiah Muneer, an ambitious but sometimes misguided young father who has aspirations of earning a better life through boxing. We see Isaiah early in the film, training vigorously at Joe’s gym and speaking of the hardships he must endure. In a Philadelphia neighborhood riddled with crime, Joe Frazier’s Gym is Isaiah’s only guiding light.
In the film, Joe Frazier’s son Marvis Frazier carries on his father’s legacy by speaking to troubled folks in the community and training fighters at the gym. He recalls a high profile bout with an older and more experienced Larry Holmes, where in the first round, Marvis playfully taunted Holmes only to have the referee stop the fight after an immediate barrage of dizzying blows to the young man. Marvis was undoubtedly upset in losing so quickly, but he was more devastated about letting down his father Joe, who was also in his corner during the fight. “I started to cry and begged him to forgive me…” Joe had only warm and comforting words for his heartbroken boy. Their loving relationship can be summarized in this brief moment of consolation.
In and out of the ring, Joe Frazier is said to have the biggest heart of any fighter, and nowhere is it more evident than in this film. While many of Frazier’s boxing peers have enjoyed great financial success as a result of their post-boxing branding and endeavors, Joe has remained humble and low-key, remaining an ambassador to his community and always being as generous as he can.
A man of this stature ought to have a statue made for him in Philadelphia, right? As it turns out, the statue already exists, but it is of a fictional boxing character named Rocky Balboa. Now we all know and love the Italian Stallion, but he is a bit of a copycat. In fact, much of the development and attributes that were written by Sylvester Stallone for the Rocky character were inspired by Joe Frazier, but were never credited. Rags to Riches boxer from Philly? Check. Training by punching dead animal carcases while working in meat packing? Check. Running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art? Check!
Someone give this man a statue already!