Late last week I spoke to director Julien Nitzberg about his Johnny Knoxville/Jeff Tremaine-produced documentary, "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia." The intimate and often-shocking look at an extended family from Boone County, WV is a well-crafted piece of film and it left me wanting to see more from the director. It turns out that he's now working on a biopic for HBO Films about 1950s wrestler Sputnik Monroe, a man who took a rather interesting approach to his work.
"Just as wrestling always has this political edge where [for example] there would be a bad Russian wrestler in the '80s [during the Cold War], in the '50s, [Sputnik Monroe] got to the south and was shocked by the racism there," Nitzberg explained. "He took on the persona, strangely enough, of the pro-integration wrestler."
The '50s were a difficult time for Civil Rights in America, with many unwilling to let go of traditions that effectively marginalized a large portion of the American population. Much of that resistance was rooted in the south, and that's where Monroe left his indelible mark.
"For black people he was a hero but for white people he was a wrestling bad guy," Nitzberg said. "So he would go on TV as a wrestler talking about how integration was good and getting white southerners super-pissed at him, driving them insane, and eventually he could outsell Elvis. Through the power of wrestling and hate he was able to amass this economic power where he could... start refusing to actually wrestle at segregated sporting arenas. [He] integrated more sporting arenas in the south than the NAACP."
There's no timetable for getting the movie made at this point, but Nitzberg revealed that he'd just handed in his third draft. The Monroe biopic was actually a very live project for him before "Wild and Wonderful Whites" came about, and HBO was kind enough to let the director step away and pursue the opportunity before continuing with his script. Now he's back though, which is great. Monroe's story is a remarkable one, and it deserves to be told.
"It's pretty insane," Nitzberg agreed. "He's both a funny guy [and] a very dark, Jake LaMotta from 'Raging Bull' kind of character who hates racism but loves pissing people off. He loves hating racists and he loves getting them mad and pissing them off."