‘Big George Foreman’ Punches Less and Prays More in Telling True Story
The life of George Foreman offers some unique challenges. As a story it goes from the roots of a major boxer with a ferocious energy, to a later life known for a committed faith and a line of cooking products. The same man who sold us on how to make a better burger won his first heavyweight title in 1973, and made history by doing it again in 1994, at the age of 45. These two sides to the boxer are the arc of “Big George Foreman,” a faith-based biopic that can be as likable as the man himself. The talented athlete is present as well as the teddy bear, performed with convincing focus by Khris Davis. Because Foreman’s life is not the stuff of high scandal, director George Tillman Jr. emphasizes his overall journey. It’s the sort of story Tillman gravitates towards in his work, which has dealt before with historical figures or characters discovering what they truly believe in.
The Foreman we meet in this movie begins as a frustrated Black American kid from Houston, Texas, who feels early on the sting of poverty. He’s always hungry but his mother struggles to provide enough for him and his siblings. At school the other kids are bullies who scoff at George’s poor threads. As a teenager he discovers Job Corps, a work-training camp in the 1960s, where his rage is noticed by Doc Broadus (Forest Whitaker), who introduces George to the fine art of boxing. Doc sees talent in George and begins training him, though astounded by the youth’s big ambition. By 1968 the young Foreman is an Olympic champ, despite his mother, Nancy (Sonja Sohn), disapproving of living through violence. Fame and a professional career in boxing follow amid changing times. George doesn’t know quite how to fit in the radical atmosphere of the era, as friends support movements like the Black Panthers. He falls in love but gets consumed by his lifestyle. The famous fight with Muhammad Ali (Sullivan Jones) in Zaire feels like the ultimate humiliation. Down and nearly out, Foreman finds Jesus and for a while puts the gloves away to become a preacher.
This is quite a journey and worthy of a big screen treatment. Tillman is skilled at finding cinematic energy in a true story, as seen in his 2009 film “Notorious,” about the life of the late rapper Christopher Wallace aka Notorious B.I.G., which had grit while framing its subject as part of a particular cultural moment during the 1990s. It also humanized Wallace, bringing out the contradictions and tragedy of the rapper’s life. In 2018 Tillman made “The Hate U Give,” a fictional but prescient drama about a Black American teen whose suburban high school world is shaken by an act of police brutality. The visceral tone of these two movies is slightly toned down in “Big George Foreman,” which seeks to be inspirational, almost like a motivational experience. There is a running thread to Tillman’s work of Black American characters pulling themselves out of economic inequality, or discovering a powerful consciousness. “It goes back to my fascination about how these people are iconic but are so human,” Tillman tells Entertainment Voice. “George came from a place where the teachers wouldn’t even look at him because of how poorly dressed he was. I myself as a young kid in Milwaukee always wanted to direct films and people would tell me no one from Milwaukee ever makes movies. I love that ideal of change and where individuals fit into society.”
“I knew both sides of Foreman growing up,” says Tillman. “I watched him as a kid when ESPN would re-run his fights from the ‘70s. I admit I would root for Ali during the famous Rumble in the Jungle. But then, when I graduated from high school in 1987, Foreman had made a comeback at 38-year-old and I was rooting for him. It makes you wonder about how we can remake our lives.” It will be tempting to see this movie as a story of conversion to the point of proselytizing. At first George sees boxing as his salvation because through it, he can learn a discipline with Doc while channeling all the anger of feeling marginalized. He avoids radical politics because he’s finally getting a taste of big money. It’s difficult to fault Foreman, since it is easier to be a radical at times when lacking little. Tillman quickly skirts over some of Foreman’s rougher edges, whether it being other women or any further excesses (Foreman himself serves as an executive producer). His hurt pride after fighting Ali (played by Sullivan Jones with great ego) causes a breakdown where he becomes convinced Jesus has entered his heart.
The third act of “Big George Foreman” is both its weakest and most intriguing. It’s all quickly covered that he decided to take up preaching, thinking his investments were sound when in fact he was being swindled by his trusted friend and wealth manager. By the 1980s a pudgier George is living a comfortable suburban, religious life with wife Mary Joan (Jasmine Mathews). Economic downturns resulting in the closure of his youth center is what inspires him to return to the ring. The burger grill never makes a cameo. “One thing I found interesting is how George was perceived as being so full of rage and anger,” Khris Davis tells Entertainment Voice, “but he was actually someone full of light, joy and kindness. Go back and look at the footage of his interviews. Just look at how much he smiles, how much he laughs. Look at how cheeky he can get with an interviewer. He was always on TV with that bright smile and enjoying meeting other people. Sonny Liston was full of rage and never smiled, George Foreman did. So I wanted to plug into that to make his struggle more interesting. To be so full of joy but hold such rage in his physicality, that’s an interesting person.”
Tillman and Davis’s approach should be commended for putting aside other boxing movie clichés, even when the movie veers on getting a bit too corny. There are the slow motion punches and trash talk inside the ring, yet “Big George Foreman” strives to be an overview of the athlete’s entire arc. If you know everything about this man, you might think this is too simple of a dramatization. For those unfamiliar with Foreman’s story, it might prove to be cosmetically insightful. Davis brings such empathy and a struggling kindness to Foreman that it makes up for the film’s other flaws. Even when he becomes a street preacher and passerby look aghast when they recognize George, you still want to root for him. All those punches in the ring were cathartic for his inner struggles, which are relatable to any underdog. “I want to continue making films about human beings,” says Tillman. “The theaters need to allow human stories to be told on the big screen. I’d like to continue making movies like this one.”
“Big George Foreman” releases April 28 in theaters nationwide.