The Duce’s Boxer

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The Duce’s Boxer (Il pugile del Duce)

The Duce’s Boxer (Il pugile del Duce)

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Il pugile del Duce

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The Duce’s Boxer tells the incredible story of Leone Jacovacci, whose career was buried in the archives for decades and only recently brought to light. A boxer who flaunted a perfect technique, Jacovacci was agile, intelligent and a powerhouse. He spoke four languages fluently, five if you count the Roman dialect. He was Italian and maybe even fascist. Certainly not anti-fascist.
On the night of June 24, 1928, at the National Stadium in Rome, with nearly 40,000 boxing fans in the bleachers and a live radio broadcast airing in cities up and down Italy, Leone Jacovacci was dubbed the European middleweight champion.
Adored by fans around the world at a time when boxing was the sport par excellence, Jacovacci had just one problem: the color of his skin. He was half-Italian and half-Congolese. Before contending for the European title, in fact, he’d struggled for four long years to win the right to the title of ‘Italian’, in a non-stop showdown between the press, the sports organizations, the politicians and the bureaucracy. After the match, however, Mussolini erased the event from Italian history – the original footage of the match, which part of the documentary hinges on, was tampered with and altered beyond recognition – and promptly invented a new champ, the ‘white’ Primo Carnera.
Now it’s today’s audiences who get to savor Jacovacci’s victory, thanks to his biographer Mauro Valeri, one of Italy’s leading experts on racism. Valeri dared to put himself in the shoes of a white father who defeated the damnatio memoriae of the fascist censors out of love for his mixed-race son.
The film weaves two different strands from a distant past, but linked by an unbreakable thread, with its absorbing retelling of Jacovacci’s rocambolesque adventures in the Congo and all the way to Rome, managing a series of different jobs, identities and countries, and playing matches held on ships, on the street, in small clubs and then in professional rings – utterly failing at not being recognized for what he was: the greatest of all time. That unbreakable thread would eventually lead to a hard-won victory, decades in the making: over racism.

All history is contemporary history, since facts re-emerge on the basis of present-day needs. And considering that there are no facts, just interpretations of fact, historical events represent two sides of the same coin: they only come to life if we rediscover them, but when we do, they are fatally interpretations of the present that produced them.
What we experienced along the way to the story of Leone Jacovacci is emblematic. There’s the film footage of a boxing match historic in itself, being the first live radio broadcast of an event in Italian history, with tens of thousands of spectators, two Italians vying for a European title, and special trains in service the length of Italy to reach the stadium in Rome; with Gabriele D’Annunzio announcing he would take part in the event, and the camera zooming in on fascists Italo Balbo and Giuseppe Bottai in the front row. That remarkably high-quality footage first re-emerges from the archives of the Istituto Luce. A closer look, however, reveals it has been tampered with, cut and pasted and artfully edited to show the opposite of what really happened. And history has handed it down from generation to generation in that form: a fake that becomes the truth. Jacovacci was erased from history the way an earthquake runs its devastating course across a landscape.
History is the science of human beings over time. It concerns all of them: those who live through it and those who chronicle it. History is political science.
We have used archival materials from 90 years ago to tell a story that is of utmost urgency today. Leone Jacovacci was a 100% Italian, but he was black. And even though he had every right to citizenship, he had to beg for four years before being granted it, as if it were a favor. He was belittled in racist articles in Italy’s leading newspapers, which constructed a ‘post-truth’ that was ahead of its time. They drove a man as strong as an ox to tears; but it would take seven heart attacks to kill him, at the age of 81, in 1983.
Today, many people have heard of Primo Carnera, a symbol of the fascist regime. But no one’s ever heard of Leone Jacovacci, until now. Yet in 1928 Jacovacci was a household name in Italy, especially in Rome. The Romans idolized Jacovacci, and that frightened Mussolini, who would later complain he had never managed to fully make over Rome as a fascist city. Leone Jacovacci, a public figure in Rome, was seen as an obstacle to the Duce’s mission as expressed in 1925: “In five years Rome will surprise the world: as astonishing, clean and powerful as it was under Augustus.” In his eyes, the black boxer was a stain on that image, one of the “incrustations” to be swept away.
The footage of the boxing match in its entirety was cut at the fifteenth round, and Jacovacci isn’t seen coming out the winner. Film frames lost forever. What for? As that sophisticated and dangerous critic Adolfo Cotronei opined on the front pages on June 26, 1928, “A black man simply can’t represent Italy abroad.”
I tell stories for a living – stories of men who have made history. This time I decided to do it in a documentary.
But I never could have done it without Mauro Valeri. He was the one who spent six long years reconstructing the life and times of Leone Jacovacci, one photo, one article, one first-hand account, one notebook at a time. He stepped up to the challenge the old boxer had taken on, to fight prejudices in the present-day, which he himself is no stranger to. All I did was put Mauro Valeri’s “counter-truth” in another form, and what I added was why he felt the need to rediscover Leone Jacovacci.
It’s thanks to Chiara Ronchini if the tattered remains of the sources mangled by the fascist propaganda have been put back together again, and the powerful photographs by Sabrina Varani grafted onto the whole, to form a frank and unsparing dialogue between past and present.
Lastly, but just because it was the last part to be composed, the score by Alessandro Gwis and Riccardo Manzi, with over ten highly original, sophisticated pieces. And the ones that weren’t original (but still Gwis and Manzi) were edited in such a way to be faithful to the spirit of the composition.
“Leone, the first great champion / a second-generation Afro-Italian / bugbear to a nation.” (last lines of the rap song by Diamante and Sandal, the end credit theme song)