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Room director Lenny Abrahamson to helm Emile Griffith biopic

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Lenny Abrahamson and producer Ed Guiney are set to make a biopic about Emile Griffith, the bisexual boxer and world champion who, in 1962, killed his opponent Benny “The Kid” Paret in the ring after Paret called him a homophobic slur at weigh-in.

Abrahamson and Guiney, the director-producer team behind the upcoming drama Room, optioned Donald McRae’s book A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith with Guiney’s Element Pictures and Film4. McRae’s book traces Griffith’s life from his childhood in the U.S. Virgin Islands to his 18-year professional boxing career, but Griffith’s most notorious fight was his televised match with Paret at Madison Square Garden.

It is so rich that it’s hard to know where to start,” Abrahamson told Deadline, which first reported the news. “As a character study, Griffith is incredibly compelling. There was a gentleness and innocence about him, and he never seemed conflicted about his sexuality; indeed he found joy in it. He inhabited two worlds — the underground gay scene in New York in the ‘60s and the macho world of boxing. The societal stigma at that time was dreadful and created a crushing pressure on him.”

Before the fight, Paret touched Griffith’s buttocks and made homophobic remarks, and at the time, Griffith was a closeted bisexual man in a society and sport that condemned his sexuality. In the ring later, Griffith pummeled Paret in the 12th round until he was unconscious. He died 10 days later in the hospital. The fight, which was broadcast live on ABC, sparked an investigation into Griffith and the entire sport of boxing, and its lasting effects were portrayed in the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story.

“You look at how closely his two worlds are intersected,” Abrahamson told Deadline. “Just how different are they, when the sport is such a celebration of the male body and the beauty of its athleticism. Go one step further, and inject the tiniest sense of sexuality, and people are up in arms. Griffith himself once said a quote that just floored me. ‘They forgave me for killing a man, but they couldn’t forgive me for loving a man.’ That to me was so powerful and such a crazy contradiction. And it is still relevant today.” 

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