Local filmmaker Blake McKinney is publicly premiering his documentary, Legends of Appalachia: The Ace Miller Story, with his co-director and writer Doug McDaniel at the Knoxville Film Festival, which runs from Sept. 17-20 at Regal’s Downtown West Cinema 8. The movie follows the path of John Tate, Miller’s protégé, to the World Heavyweight Championship—and Miller’s impact on Knoxville itself.
What are people learning about Ace Miller through this documentary that they did not know before?
The way he would help kids out in the community. The emphasis of the Golden Gloves program is that everything’s free. It’s hard with some kids wanting to play sports. If you want to play football you have to buy your cleats, if you want to play basketball you have to buy your shoes. But with boxing and Golden Gloves, if you just show up, the only thing you have to pay for is hand wraps, and if you can’t pay for it, they’ll take care of it with a donation. [Miller] did a really good job, he didn’t broadcast it that he did all this other stuff. [Miller] was a professional boxing trainer first, but he was a big player in the community.
How important was Ace Miller to Knoxville?
He gave kids a chance to kind of learn something about themselves and have a goal to work toward. When it’s just you and one other guy in a boxing ring, it’s just you. When you get punched in the nose what are you going to do? Is the game plan going to go out the window or are you going to remember your training? That’s a really good correlation for life. Life’s not always that easy, and who are you when the going gets tough? He taught a lot of people that lesson.
So for people uninterested in sports and boxing, what can they take away from this documentary?
I think the life lessons of perseverance, learning how to overcome obstacles, and kind of just pushing forward with a good group of people around you. That’s one integral part of the movie, no one ever says that loudly. Ace always had his team, John Tate always had his team of people that were there to help him along. For me, it’s a good illustration to life, you have to have good people around you, people that will push you to be the best version of yourself.
Can you give us some of those cool stories about Ace?
There was a couple bar-fight stories. I think we left one in, but there was a couple where he would basically get everybody riled up, and then step back and let everybody else handle it. So that was really funny. He was not a big man in stature, he was like 5 feet 8 inches, and he was not an imposing man at all. They called him “the Colonel,” but he had this zeal about him where he could just control people, in a good way. That’s what really helped him connect with boxers. You feared him, but you didn’t really know why. He was a good man, but a little rough around the edges.
For people that already know about Ace, what new things can they learn about him from this documentary?
In the Magnolia area to the Chilhowee Park area, he was very beloved in a lot of communities. He was the kind of guy that would literally give you the shirt off his back. There’s been lots of different stories about him. A kid that showing up to the gym without any shoes on. He stopped practice, he put the kid in his truck, drove him to Walmart and got him three pairs of shoes, came back, and then they started practicing. Just time and time again, things like that.
What was it about Ace that made him a local celebrity?
I think it was his demeanor. The way that he waved the flag for Knoxville, he loved this city. He had opportunities to go train at Detroit, New York, or Memphis, but he never wanted to leave here, he wanted to build Knoxville into the amateur boxing capital of the world. That was his ultimate goal. And he did, for a while. We had Sugar Ray Leonard come and fight here, a lot of different names, like Big John Tate won the heavyweight title of the world.
Why did you pick the John Tate angle to focus on for this documentary?
I think because that was Ace’s most successful boxer. He had a lot of really good boxers before and after John Tate, but that was the one that went the farthest. So we felt like that story could resonate more nationally, outside of Knoxville, with someone that actually climbed the mountain and got to the top.
What’s the most important thing to take away from the film?
The most important thing would be the giving spirit and the communal spirit of Ace Miller. That’s the one thing that I think resonates the most, and you can see it in everyone telling the stories, that they really loved him and knew he was a good man. I think it’s a pretty universal story, too. You don’t have to know where Chilhowee Park is, or where Magnolia is, to understand how compassionate he was.
Knoxville Film Festival
(The Ace Miller Story screens Saturday, Sept. 19 at 5:30 p.m.)
Regal Downtown West Cinema 8 (1640 Downtown W. Blvd.)
Share this Post