Don King: Only In America is an HBO biopic of the controversial boxing promoter, Don King. It’s a good movie but it will probably always be overshadowed by what happened when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voted to give Ving Rhames the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV-Movie or Miniseries. When Rhames won, he called fellow nominee Jack Lemmon to the stage and gave him the award, saying “I feel that being an artist is about giving, and I’d like to give this to you.” Lemmon, who had been nominated for his work in 12 Angry Men, accepted the statue while the audience gave Rhames a standing ovation. The HFPA later sent Rhames a second statue and Spike Lee satirized the entire incident in Bamboozled when he had Damon Wayans give away an award he had won to Matthew Modine.
Ving Rhames plays the title role in Don King: Only in America and he definitely deserved every nomination and award that he received as a result. The episodic film starts in the 50s, with a young King being sentenced to prison and then shows how King went on to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in America. It’s not always a flattering portrait. The movie fully documents how King cheated the boxers that he managed and the damage that he ultimately did to the image of boxing, a sport that didn’t have a particularly good reputation to begin with. At the same time, Rhames is such a force of nature that it’s hard not to sometimes admire King’s chutzpah as he deals with and outwits everyone from the Mob to the IRS to racist fight promoters to greedy dictators. As played by Rhames, King makes himself a success by the virtue of his own hard work and utter ruthlessness. He’s a flamboyant showman who knows how to play hardball behind the scenes and who refuses to take no for an answer. He ruins the lives of too many people to ever become a sympathetic figure but he remains a fascinating one.
The film features Rhames, as King, standing in a boxing ring, telling us his story and occasionally interrupting the flashbacks whenever he thinks that they’re reflecting too negatively on him. (When the film shows Muhammad Ali, played by Darius McCrary, incapacitated by Parkinson’s, King stops the film and angrily tells us that he had nothing to do with that.) The real Don King supposedly hated the way this film portrayed him and threatened to stop doing business with HBO after it aired but he should have appreciated Ving Rhames’s performance. Don King is fond of saying that he could have become a millionaire “only in America,” and Rhames’s flamboyant, charismatic, and no holds barred performance convinces us that he’s right.