PANAMA AL BROWN


inspired by a true story

written by Gregory Boutboul

He was « Mohammed Ali » ahead of his time. Show man, mastering seven languages, loving poetry and accused of loving men, Panama Al Brown was the first black star of the 20th century, when the colour of your skin could be a crime.

18th June 1929. Panama Al Brown made history by becoming boxing's first Hispanic world champion.

March 4th, 1935, his enemies drug him until he passes out, just before a decisive match, and steal his title from him.

Two years later, being an opium addict, performing in cabarets for a few coins, eaten up by arthritis and syphilis, Alfonso is barely alive. But fate presents him with a second chance : Jean Cocteau, writer of genius for some, toxic devil for others. A passionate friendship is sealed, some say a love story. Thus, defying the thirties’ society, when being black and gay was potentially a deadly combination, they accomplish a miracle : the greatest come back in the history of boxing.

Panama Al Brown rises from the dead and takes back what’s his. But the fall will be harder than ever...


AL BROWN :
BIOGRAPHY

Colòn, Panama (1902-1923) :
The birth of a champion

Alfonso Teofilo Brown was born in Colòn, July 5th, 1902.
His father was a former emancipated slave from Tennessee. In 1880, he enters Panama, where the United States are having a gigantic canal built. 9.000 immigrants are there. White employees live in luxurious districts, when black workers are confined in a ghetto where poverty and violence prevail. 6.000 workers die on the construction site.
When his father died from a heart attack, Alfonso is only 13. The teenager turns to boxing, in order to feed his family. Boxing is indeed very popular among white immigrants at the time and numerous matches are held.
Alfonso stands out by his punch and unique style:

"boxing has to be joyful. A boxer dances. Even during the breaks, he still sets the tempo and dances between the ropes."

His first professional match takes place March 19th, 1922, and ends with a victory. After seven fights, he becomes Panama’s champion. With a few dollars in his pocket, he decides to take a chance in New York and bribes a sailor to hide him in a ship hold.

New York (1923-1926) :
No blacks allowed !

Alfonso spends weeks living among rats and contemplating the Statue of Liberty. He’ll be wandering through Harlem, sleeping in Central Park and hanging around boxing clubs for months, looking for just any job. Alfonso is flabbergasted to see no black and white get together anywhere, not even for boxing training.
At last, he plays his first match August 22d, 1923. On this special occasion, he is named Panama Al Brown. He then earns his first fee of 20 dollars, half of what was agreed.

"I instantly got a grasp of what an American manager could be to a black boxer: hardly an honest man, never a friend..."

But after this fight, his rise to power never ceased. In a three years time frame, he’ll put on 43 fights and only lose 3. However, Alfonso cleans out more cabarets than training rooms.

"For me to be alive, I need 20.000 bottles of champagne. The rest comes second."

His manager seems to be incapable to take Alfonso to a World Championship, though he is considered to be the best boxer of his category. Alfonso from Panama then decides to flee this racist America to go to Paris, where the Revue Nègre seems to have such a success.

Paris (1926-1935) :
World champion

"When in New York, my first night ever was in Harlem, while my first night in Paris was in Montmartre. In every club I went, I met a friend, going from one discovery to another. Champagne was pricey but excellent. I was supposed to go to bed by 9, to train early in the morning. But I was out of my hotel bed by 10, rushing to see friends from Harlem doing a tap dance act in a cabaret. Paris was a dreamy delight, and all my money had already gone."

Panama Al Brown soon becomes Paris’ showstopper. Fans from all across the world fly to Paris to see this incredible boxer, on and off the ring, lighting up Montmartre with his singing and jazz dancing.

June 18th, 1926: he becomes the World champion, and will be so for nine years, fighting more than a hundred matches between 1926 and 1935! Sometimes he’ll fight twice in three days or even with a fractured right hand. Why would he? His contract doesn’t leave him with any other choice...But also, he has too many debts at the Casino and at the race tracks.
In order to keep this infernal pace, Alfonso is drugged, more and more, and doesn’t stop it from happening.

Why would he stick to this suicidal behaviour?

"Life is already much too beautiful for a poor damn nigger, destined by the colour of his skin and his profession to give and receive punches."

On June 1st, 1935, his career ends brutally. A Spanish boxer, Balthazar Sangchilli, steals his title. Never before had a Spanish boxer won the World champion title. But in the midst of the Spanish civil war, this victory could not occur at a better time. And so that night, Panama Al Brown got drugged more than he could bare. Sangchilli wins and Alfonso passes out.

Paris (1925-1938) :
The resurrection

"After being poisoned and losing his title, he was revolted and prevented anyone from talking about boxing in his presence", — says Jean Cocteau.

Panama Al Brown is suffering from syphilis and arthritis, and quits boxing. Poor as a rat, he makes a show of himself in a cabaret in Montmartre. This will go on for two years.
One night, Jean Cocteau sees him perform. They are born the same day, have the same height, same shoe size, but most of all, share a mutual passion for opium.

Together, they decide to enter rehab in a hospital. Alfonso is in pain, weaning himself from opium, but he holds on. He slowly gets the poet’s intention: to get Panama Al Brown on the ring ! He finally agrees to Cocteau being his coach. Of course both men become a joke amongst the sport world, as well as an easy pray for gossips about the nature of their relationship.
Panama Al Brown gets back on a ring on September 9th, 1937, facing a sturdy boxer, openly racist and undefeated for four years. The far-right wing rushes to see the match and witness a Black man’s massacre.
Some think Alfonso is heading towards a certain death. But a miracle occurs ! Panama Al Brown wins during the first round. Then follow five matches, which he will all win.
And finally, the return match against Sangchilli takes place. As the outcome of this epic fight, Panama Al Brown becomes a World Champion again. He then decides to quit boxing once and for all and dedicates his victory to Cocteau. Going through a difficult stage in his career, the poet manages to catch the light again, thanks to the boxer. But Cocteau will now avoid the boxer, attracted to a new muse.
Feeling left out, Alfonso turns to music hall again.

Panama (1941-1947) :
Rise and fall

Squandering his money at a fast pace, Alfonso returns to his homeland where he is considered a living god. But the lack of finances forces him to go back on the ring. And once again, the myth shatters. He will fight nine times until 1942, and in each match he is getting weaker and weaker, the viewers fewer and fewer and the fees more and more ridiculous.
Once he was honoured with the highest Panamanian distinction, and now he is being judged for using and owning narcotics.
He then decides he’d rather be a wretch in New York rather than Colón.

Harlem (1947 à 1951) :
Highway to hell

Alfonso suffers from tuberculosis. He however continues to go from one club to another, living in a miserable room and starving every day.
His last two years take place between hospitals and nursing homes. He weighs 90 pounds, can barely and hardly speak, and half of his body is paralysed.
On a morning of November 1950, the police picks unconscious Alfonso up from the pavement, between 42th and Broadway. He barely has a human form, light as a feather.
As no one ever claimed his body, he will be burnt. Like his father was.


AL BROWN :
LITTLE STORIES

At the beginning… (1915)

Alfonso’s father was a devout catholic. His last will was to be buried following the Christian rite. But when he died, it couldn’t be afforded and his body had to be burnt.
Alfonso, furious that his father wasn’t granted the right to a tomb, punched a cracked wall, which then collapsed. An American soldier who witnessed the scene was so impressed by his strength that he offered to be his boxing manager.

Circus games (1922)

In a sordid locker room in New York, Alfonso, age 20, undresses in the midst of a dozen black colossus. He seems so frail standing next to them. The men throw insults at each other, push each other around or even fight, trying to impress. But the look in their eyes says it all : they are terrified. The boxers enter the ring, in front of a white merry audience. The referee blindfolds them. The bell goes off. The wrestlers blind fight, they get hit by heads, elbows, feet... Blood is everywhere, they drop like flies.
Alfonso gets booed because instead of fighting back, he avoids the hits, moving around like a dancer. Only him and a colossus remain standing. The blindfolds are taken off. The two last survivors finally get the change to fight a real match. Alfonso avoids the blows using his fascinating footwork. He then brutally strikes his opponent with an uppercut. The giant falls down. Alfonso stares at the audience with contempt.

« J'ai deux amours, Paris et… » (1926)

A jungle set on a cabaret stage. We can hear a tribal music being played. A leopard appears on stage and threatens to jump on the scared audience but he is hold back by a chain. A topless mixed-race woman appears on stage, her hair flatten with gel, wearing a belt with hanging bananas and a feather necklace : it’s Joséphine Baker. She does the Charleston dance, pulling faces, and playing with the roaring animal. She crawls on the floor and steps down from the stage on all fours. The audience gets crazy. She rubs her body against several men, sitting on their knees... She freezes as she sees Alfonso. She goes back on stage and goes on with her show, when Alfonso suddenly joins her and dances beautifully. She tries to dance in his footsteps. Together they sing :

"J'ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris..."

Big-spender (1930)

The day after a match, Alfonso earns several thousands of francs. He then runs to get himself the latest Bugatti. Barely out of the garage, he didn’t even have the time to get insurance, he has an accident in the Bois de Boulogne. The car sets on fire. The entire fee is gone. That doesn’t stop him from buying exactly the same car the next morning.

The stadium king (1933)

The whole of Paris is rushing to the Palais des Sports to attend Panama Al Brown’s fight. Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinski, Coco Chanel, André Breton... Everyone is to be seen. As Alfonso appears, the audience is divided : some worship him, when others throw bananas at him, making monkey sounds. His opponent of the day declares :

"I will avenge our French colours by destroying this negro who no white has ever managed to knock down."

But in the first round, the white boxer is humiliated by Panama Al Brown who doesn’t however knock him down, to make the pleasure last...
At the end of the first round. Alfonso goes to his corner and enjoys a glass of champagne. His trainer even lights him a cigar. Policemen surround the ring to stop the audience from ripping the agitator apart...

Artificial Paradises (1938)

In an Indonesian setting, Alfonso, among a dozen opium addicts lying on mattresses, is leaning on a coffee table. Thirty years old, his face is strained, he is holding an opium pipe and taking long puffs. He remembers : Alfonso, in his shorts and robe, is facing his trainer, who dips a syringe in a small bottle. He pushes the needle through Alfonso’s veins. He bleeds. He falls asleep and “sees” himself boxing in front of an audience whose screams sound nothing like human...
His manager wakes him up brutally with a slap. Alfonso is surprised to wake up at the same exact same spot. The only differences being his black eye, a huge amount of sweat, his painful hand and the fast pace of his heart. He has just fought, but he was so drugged he can’t remember a thing...

Jean Cocteau (1938)

Alfonso is taking a bath. The water is dirty. He comes out of it and wraps himself in a towel. He is about to empty the tub when Cocteau enters the bathroom, undresses and happily jumps in the filthy waters. Taken aback, Alfonso asks if it doesn’t disgust him ? With an ingenuous smile, Cocteau shakes his head. Alfonso is moved by his friend’s gesture. Most white people wouldn’t even go near him...


SCENARIO :
SYNOPSIS

LOGLINE

He is the Mohamed Ali of his time. He fled racism and homophobia in New York in the late 1920s and was betrayed in Paris, but he is brought back into the ring by famous poet Jean Cocteau.

Pitch

Alfonso "Panama" is only thirteen when his father dies. He starts boxing to bring extra money home to his family. His career is stuck in New York because of racism. He decides to move to Paris in its Roaring Years. When he's not boxing, he performs on stage with his close friend Josephine Baker. He remains bantamweight world champion for eight years. Then, in 1935, he is betrayed and by his manager, drugged, in order to let Franco's 'protégé' steal the title from him. Panama quits and starts a descent into hell. In an opium den, he meets famous poet Jean Cocteau, who decides he will make him a world champion again.

Summary

At thirteen years old, Panama witnesses his father die like a slave, which he was before being freed. Alfonso decides that he will change the course of his own destiny by becoming a boxing champion. The greatest champion of all: Panama Al Brown.

Extremely talented, his future seemed bright and promising. But when his friend and world champion, Battling Siki, is shot down in the streets of New York like a dog, only because he had the audacity to be seen with a white woman, Panama Al Brown is devastated. He suddenly understands that all the medals in the world will never change how he is perceived: a black man.

He then starts spiralling down, in a self-destructive attitude. He traps himself in an arrogant, provocative, yet invincible persona. People make monkey sounds as he goes by, throwing banana skins at him, but nevertheless, he makes a fool out of any opponent once in the ring.

Spending more time drinking, dancing, or playing jazz than practising, his friend Josephine Baker warns him: he might end up like Siki. But Panama feels untouchable. His increasing drug use probably emphasizes this feeling.

On March 4th, 1935, his enemies drug him; he passes out just before a decisive match and his title is stolen. For the entire world, from this moment on, Panama Al Brown is a “dead man” in the ring.

Two years later, he's an opium addict, performing in cabarets for a few coins, eaten up by arthritis and syphilis; Alfonso is barely alive.

But fate presents him with a second chance : Jean Cocteau. Genius for some, toxic devil for others, one thing is certain : Cocteau is like no other. And so is Alfonso. A passionate friendship is sealed, some say a love story. Thus, defying the '30s society, when being black and gay was potentially a deadly combination, they accomplish a miracle : the greatest comeback in the history of boxing !

Panama Al Brown rises from the dead and takes back what’s his. But the fall will be harder than ever.

Artist Statement

Panama Al Brown is a story of an impossible love in 1930s Paris . Inspired by the real life of Panama Al Brown, the chosen angle is the one of a passionate friendship between two men in a society where racism, homophobia, and social inequality prevail.

We did deep research about the black Latino boxer. Only one biography exists by painter Eduardo Arroyo, completed in 1998. Many parts of his life have remained unknown. Some posthumous writings by Jean Cocteau have contributed to shed lights on some of those parts. We further investigated this fascinating character by interviewing Cocteau’s biographers, in particularly Claude Arnaud, who helped us understand the special bounds between Cocteau and Al Brown.

Al Brown is a son of a slave who ascends in the society because he is an unprecedented athlete, but also thanks to his provocative and eccentric nature that made him the darling of the Parisian intellectual elites for a while. Jean Cocteau is a bourgeois; a poet who grew up among famous artists, who can be toxic for the human beings he chooses to be his muses. It seems that his relationship with Al Brown was the very first that he developed on a completely generous and selfless basis. His devotion was sincere.

Panama and Jean Cocteau’s characters are fabulous parts for actors. Panama’s part is a once-in-a-lifetime role and an opportunity for a sensitive, complex, and challenging interpretation for a black Latino-American actor. In a time when movie industry is blamed for not giving enough opportunities to minorities, we feel this project can open some paths. To cast this actor will be a great challenge: he needs to be able to box, dance, and play the saxophone !

Josephine Baker, as the supportive confidant and the messenger, warning of a possible fall, is also a very sensitive character. Josephine Baker's character has already been brought to the screen but never from this perspective.

Concerning Jean Cocteau, who was 47 at that time, we thought that several french actors could be a great match.


SCENARIO :
SCRIPT

NEW YORK 1923 —

1

INT. LOCKER ROOM - NIGHT

ALFONSO (age 21), tall and lanky, undresses along with a dozen or so colossal African-American men. They insult, jostle and punch each other. Though they try to look tough, their eyes betray their terror.

2

INT. BOXING ARENA - NIGHT

Roughly a hundred spectators sit around a ring. The boxers enter the ring. A referee covers their eyes with blindfolds. The referee strikes a bell. The fighters strike out blindly, awkwardly. The crowd howls with laughter at the melee. The fighters get elbowed, head-butted, kicked. Blood spurts. The fighters fall like flies. Alfonso is booed because instead of hitting out, he skips between his opponents with dance-like steps, avoiding punches.
In the ring, only three fighters are still standing, including Alfonso. One of the three goes down.

— REFEREE : Stop!

The inanimate fighters are hauled out of the ring. The referee removes the blindfolds from Alfonso and his opponent, another of the giants. The two men face off. Alfonso avoids punches thanks to his fancy footwork, then throws an uppercut at the Goliath, who crumbles.

3

INT. LOCKER ROOM - NIGHT

Alfonso dresses again in the middle of the disfigured, if not unconscious fighters. One of them looks dead. The organizer gives each of them a dollar. When he gets to Alfonso, he musses the fighter’s hair and hands him a ten-dollar bill.

4

ARENA - NIGHT

The hall is now empty. Black workmen mop the bloody floor of the ring. Alfonso exits the locker room wearing a checkered cap, moth-eaten suit and a duffle bag. A white man in a dark suit, BOBBY (age 40), walks up to him..

— BOBBY : Hello there. Robert Diamond. I want to get you some real fights.

Alfonso takes the business card that Bobby offers him.

— BOBBY (CONT’D) : Have you eaten? Dinner’s on me.

— ALFONSO : I’m thirsty, and I want to dance.

— BOBBY : Well, I know a place where whitesand Negroes mingle.

They walk through the arena.

— BOBBY (CONT’D) : So where do you hail from?

— ALFONSO : Panama.

— BOBBY : Name?

— ALFONSO : Alfonso Teofilo.

Bobby whips out two cigars and offers one to Alfonso, who takes it. Bobby lights Alfonso’s cigar.

— BOBBY : How ‘bout we call you Panama Al Brown. It’s slick.

Alfonso shrugs nonchalantly.