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Joe Frazier’s Second Life: An Interview with Doc of the Month Director Michael Todd

February 1st, 2012 by Ben Collins Editor

Think back to what you know about Joe Frazier.

You know he fought Muhammad Ali three times. You know he died a couple of months ago, sometime in November of last year. You know he was a great fighter, and you almost forgot about it until he died, when everybody decided to remember him again.

But Joe Frazier was a lot more than that. Michael Todd knew firsthand.

Todd went out to make a film about inner-city boxing gyms in Philadelphia, but wound up running into Joe Frazier, one of the greatest fighters in the world who was losing grip on funding his gym because, for no real reason, Frazier had been largely forgotten about.

So Todd shifted the focus. He made it an expansive Joe Frazier biography. The gym, by the way, was more of a community center than a place for young people to hit one another. It was to keep kids off the streets—to keep kids from shooting each other in a place where it happened more on average than almost any other place in the country—and it was about to shut down because Frazier couldn’t afford to keep it open anymore.

Thing is, anybody who has ever met him sings Joe’s praises. George Foreman, Bernard Hopkins, even Ali’s old trainer Angelo Dundee. They gave Todd almost unrestricted access and candor and time.

What came out of it was “Joe Frazier: When The Smoke Clears,” the way Frazier should be remembered. Frazier himself gave the thumbs up to the film when he had his individual screening with a few hundred friends a few months ago.

Then Todd premiered it at the DocNYC festival on November 7, 2011. Frazier died the same day.

So the best, most complete work about Frazier’s life is out now. Yep, Frazier saw it. It’s too bad he won’t be able to see the positive reception something this expansive and good will be given.

Regardless, we’ve decided to make it our Documentary of the Month for February, Black History Month, because we can’t think of many better ways to live a life than the way Joe Frazier did.

We talked to Todd about his film the other day and about how he’d like to get people see Frazier’s life as a whole work. He hopes it opens some eyes to the work Frazier did in his hometown before his death—work he had to do without the world knowing.

On Frazier receiving a wave of recognition after his death and if that was expected:

Michael Todd: We didn’t expect, obviously, for him to pass away like he did. But our film was about how his life had been lived outside of the mainstream. Once he was caught up in this intense moment in history—not just sport—that kind of transcended the sport. But the life he left was kind of revealing about the life he lived, where he’d come from, and all the rest of it.

Yet despite him having one of the few names with true global recognition—those fights with Ali were so epic and were seen all over the world—there he was in this gym in Philadelphia carrying on this sort of work in this area where, in the time that we were filming, had one of the highest crime rates in the United States.

It’s slightly sad that he was not given the recognition he was deserved, not just in the sport but in the role his gym had played in the community, as well.

About how the film evolved into a Frazier biography from something very different.

It was over four years ago that we had went to Philadelphia. We had come at it from a simple standpoint, of doing a film about an inner-city gym. It was a fairly basic idea, but we thought, “What a better place to do it than Joe Frazier’s gym?” It was such an iconic name. It seemed like such a natural way into it. But only then, when we started to get to know Joe and we started filming, did we explore more how his life story related to the work he was doing.

On Todd’s unfettered access to Frazier, his family, and the boxing community.

I think people had come to Joe in the past with a preconceived story which they then sought a need for him to deliver. Ours was a lot more of an open-ended process. Because we were making an independent film, we weren’t driven by a particular deadline. The more access Joe gave us, the more time we wanted to spend with him and got into his life.

Because of his background, he was actually a very resilient character. He was happy, I would say. I think he was proud of what he’d done and what he was doing. I do think he was less than pleased about how he was treated, but he was not a bitter man.

Bill Rhoden, from the New York Times, came to our premiere in New York. He got the essence of what we were trying to do, which was to look at Joe’s life as the account of a human being and what it was to live through everything he lived through. But as a man, and not trying to fit it into a specific context of something else.

On this film and vindication of Frazier’s character.

What we did expect to happen was this would be very positive film, a very positive look at Joe. But what we didn’t expect to happen was the closing of the gym. And that certainly makes it feel like the end of the film—the end of the story—in a way. You start to see (Joe’s son) Marvis’ kind of desperate desire to see the gym continue as sort of a legacy for his father, in a way.

About how inner-city boxing rings help regulate violence, and how that was part of Frazier’s plan:

We talk to a guy in the film from Yale who did a long study about ending the problems on the streets. He talked to us at length. It’s not just the gym, but it’s a great example. Because there are so many problems out there in the community, the gym represents a safe haven in that there’s a decency and an honor code. So while you’re in that space, you can make positive efforts to focus your life.

About the boxers, like George Foreman and Bernard Hopkins, willing to open up at length about Frazier:

Every single person we talked to felt that this way we were approaching it had not been done, and it was something people had responded to. I remember talking to Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, about what we were doing, and he said, “Now, that’s a story.”

Our goal was to take Joe out of being constantly defined by this rivalry and these moments in his life. These were incredibly important and significant, so that’s the other side to define what he achieved. But he was 68 when he died. He did a lot more than that before he died.

We were lucky enough to be able to get Joe to see the film before he died. We did a preview screening in New York and about 400 or 500 people came. And Joe said that it was the only film on him that gave a true sense of who he was.

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