ROME – As Europe’s neo-fascists re-emerge and right-wing populism sweeps through the West, a documentary about a black Italian boxer who discredited Benito Mussolini’s racist ideology by winning a European boxing title is making a splash in Italy and abroad.
“The Duce’s Boxer” tells the story of Leone Jacovacci, an African Italian born in the Congo who won the 1928 European middleweight title by beating Mario Bosisio a white Italian boxer favored by the country’s Fascist leaders, in front of 40,000 fans in Rome’s National Stadium.
An infuriated Mussolini then ordered Jacovacci and his achievement erased from Italy’s history books. But 89 years later, Jacovacci’s story has resurfaced, with “The Duce’s Boxer” premiering Tuesday in 25 Italian cities to mark the U.N. International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Based on the book “Black Roman” by Italian sociologist Mauro Valeri, a former head of the country’s National Xenophobia Observatory, “The Duce’s Boxer” is directed by first-timer Tony Saccucci.
Saccucci used archive footage from Italian state film entity Istituto Luce and photos provided by Jacovacci’s family. Saccucci found that footage of the title match had been tampered with by Fascist censors.
“The Duce’s Boxer” has gained international media attention following a recent launch attended by foreign media outlets at Rome’s Auditorium Parco Della Musica theatre. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who publicized it on her show, said Jacovacci “gave Mussolini’s Italy a black eye.”
Jacovacci’s story is reminiscent of American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’ feat when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, debunking Hitler’s creed of Aryan supremacy.
Born in 1902 in Congo to the daughter of an African tribal chief and an Italian immigrant, Jacovacci led an adventurous life. He was raised near Rome but as a teenager ran off to England where he changed his name to John Douglas Walker, joined the British army, and was sent to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks.
Back in London, he became a boxer by chance when he was offered £5 to stand in for a fighter who had not shown up. Jacovacci then moved to France, where he posed as an American boxer and won many bouts before returning to Italy in 1922. There he fought against Fascist impediments as his popularity soared with Roman fans who resented that all Italian boxers of the day came from Milan.
Two days after Jacovacci’s European middleweight title triumph, it was decreed that a black boxer could never represent Italy again. Jacovacci faded into obscurity, working as a doorman in a Milan apartment complex.
Istituto Luce, which produced “The Duce’s Boxer” and is releasing it theatrically as a special event, is in talks with several international sales companies regarding international distribution.