It starts with expectations.
If you're entering Big George Foreman, an Affirm Films release, expecting to see Scorsese's Raging Bull or a Rocky or Creed film, there's a pretty good chance you're going to leave the theatre more than a little disappointed.
Big George Foreman, which is actually titled Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World but I'm sticking with Big George Foreman, isn't so much what I'd consider to be a boxing film as it is a film about one of the most unique and misunderstood figures in the history of boxing. Foreman was an underappreciated champ, a guy who never quite fit into the mold everyone wanted him to fit into and whose success always seemed to be more than a little bittersweet.
Big George Foreman captures both the Foreman we never completely understood and the Foreman we over the years came to love.
If you're perhaps unaware, Affirm Films is a faith-based distribution label under the Sony Picture umbrella. If you know Foreman's life, then you understand entirely why Foreman would, after years of resisting,consent to a cinematic portrayal of his life by choosing a smaller, more faith-inspired label. Of course, that's part of the story that unfolds in Big George Foreman and it's why faith-based audiences will love the film while critics will, as usual, dismiss the film's kinder and gentler approach to the George Foreman story. b
If there's a complaint to be made about Big George Foreman, it's that even at just over two hours it's a film that looks and feels like a Cliff's Notes version of Foreman's remarkable life. Big George Foreman tells a remarkable story, though not always remarkably.
On the flip side, I can't deny that Big George Foreman gave me a much deeper appreciation for Foreman and the power of what could easily be called a rags-to-riches story. It's the film's early scenes of the "rags" that are particularly moving, one particularly poignant scene of he and his six siblings sharing a single hamburger a brief but impactful scene reflecting Foreman's childhood in Houston's Fifth Ward. Despite the gentler approach to storytelling by director George Tillman Jr. and co-scribe Frank Baldwin, we get a sense of the dramatic challenges faced by Foreman and the bottled up rage and poor self-image that would later fuel much of his boxing career. Before all of that could occur, Foreman had to deal with bullying from others at school because his family couldn't afford lunch and by his mid-teens he'd dropped out of school and was headed down the wrong path. A police encounter that left him hiding in sewage planted visions of finding a different way.
That way, a Job Works program, began to reveal the intensity of Foreman's rage but also introduced him to Doc Broadus (Forest Whitaker), who diverted Foreman's undisciplined anger into boxing and may very well have saved his life in the process.
It's arguable, of course, that Big George Foreman fails to adequately capture the intensity of the darkness that often followed Foreman and that was, at least modestly, captured in Leon Gast's 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. While that film leaned toward a more negative portrayal of Foreman, Big George Foreman digs a little deeper and paints a fundamental yet still more complex portrayal. Foreman's quick embrace of boxing is captured vividly from a 1968 Olympic Gold Medal to amateur successes and finally into his champion years. Big George Foreman captures the emotional devastation of Foreman's loss in the "Rumble in the Jungle" to Ali and how a near-death experience led him to the faith journey he'd always dismissed.
The second half of Big George Foreman is undeniably bathed in an angelic glow as Foreman's baptism eventually leads to ministry, church planting, and ten years away from boxing and in the pulpit while he commits a good amount of his winnings to starting a youth center. While these scenes will work differently for different people, director George Tillman Jr. does an excellent job of balancing the only two things Foreman knows how to do - preach and box.
Khris Davis, most known for Space Jam: A New Legacy and Judas and the Black Messiah, is absolutely stellar as Foreman. Davis's physical and emotional transformation is mesmerizing without ever being distracting. From Foreman's intimidatingly chiseled early boxing years to his comeback years, Davis captures the physical transformation without using prosthetics and without turning any piece of it into a caricature. Davis gives what can only be described as a breakout performance.
Forest Whitaker always shines and his work here as Doc Broadus is no exception. Whitaker breathes heart and soul into Broadus, understanding the faith elements of this film without compromising the grit. It's a winner of a performance.
For a boxer who seemed to always get out-dazzled by Ali, it's perhaps a tad ironic that Sullivan Jones, as Ali, steals just about every scene he's in. I have to admit I was also particularly taken by Sonja Sohn's turn as Foreman's mother Nancy. From her earliest scenes, Sohn breathes dignity and life into this woman of faith who gave everything she had even when she didn't have much. More than once, Sohn's Nancy left me in tears.
Big George Foreman adds tremendous depth to a man whose life is often seen through the lens of a certain grill that has become a household staple for many. Interestingly enough, it must be noted, Foreman has earned more from the George Foreman Grill than he ever did in his career as a boxer. Though, the public acceptance that always seemed to elude Foreman throughout his boxing career would finally come when he returned to boxing at the age of 38 and reclaimed the Heavyweight Championship at the almost unfathomable age of 45 before retiring, for good this time, at 48.
While there are some that will always dismiss faith-based or faith-inspired films, Affirm Films has become practically synonymous with their distribution and while Big George Foreman isn't necessarily a knockout I have a strong feeling that faith-based audiences declare the film a winner by near-unanimous decision. With a career break-out performance by Khris Davis, a truly outstanding turn by Sonja Sohn, and storytelling that leans kinder and gentler, Big George Foreman may never quite become the film we'd like it to be but this feel-good flick is still a winner.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic