A Local Boxing Champ Dreams Big in Out of the Basement
Tucked away in the basement of an apartment building in Columbia Heights is the Lime Lite Boxing Gym, a ragtag operation that’s already produced one bona fide champion boxer and seems likely to turn out more. That champion is teenager Malik Jackson, who boasts two Junior Olympics national titles and has a good shot at competing in the 2016 Olympics.
But in the short documentary Out of the Basement, screening at the Black Cat this Sunday as a fundraiser for the gym, filmmakers Natalie Avery and Kyle Centers look past Jackson to a different protagonist: pro heavyweight Greg Newby, a Coast Guard veteran with a felony charge, an ex-wife, and a young daughter he’s not allowed to see. Over the course of the film, Newby reiterates his belief that boxing is his only ticket to a solid income and, eventually, his daughter, of whom his ex-wife retains full custody in Portsmouth, Va. This philosophy is directly contradicted by Newby’s trainer and father, Tony Simmons, Lime Lite’s owner and a firm believer that his athletes need to work steady jobs, not just box.
This father-son clash, and the tension between the need to work and the need to dream, is expressed obliquely in the film, which never shows Newby and Simmons at odds. But to Avery, it's the film’s central conflict . “Here you have Tony, who basically quit boxing because he had to go to work,” she says. “And then you have this guy who’s like, ‘I don’t have any other options. I have to box.’”
Avery and Centers met as students at George Washington University’s Documentary Center in 2012, where they worked on a profile of the gym, Into The Lime Lite, with six classmates. The subject wasn’t their idea—neither filmmaker had a interest in boxing—but after graduating, the two stuck with Lime Lite to film a sequel centered around Newby, whose story landed on the first film’s cutting-room floor. They put up their own money to shoot Newby’s boxing matches, later picking up a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to finish the film.
On a Sunday afternoon, Avery and Centers were editing trailers in a shared office space above a Mt. Pleasant Mexican restaurant. Days earlier, the final cut of Out of the Basement had screened for its first public audience at the GALA Hispanic Theatre and received a rapturous response from the crowd (primarily Lime Lite members and benefactors).
“We were the least likely to make a film together after the class,” says Avery, who is also the executive director of the D.C. Business Improvement District Council. “The kid out of college and the fortysomething mom.”
Avery, who grew up in Friendship Heights, saw parallels between Lime Lite’s scrappy work turning out champions and the D.C. punk scene of her youth. She and Centers were linked by “that idea of people completely out of the limelight, in basements, making something incredible in this city that people discounted,” she says.
Centers, who does video work for a Rockville-based corporate advertising company, lives in his girlfriend’s parent’s house in Fairfax. "So," he says, "I’m in a basement as well.”
The film—which includes a score by Brendan Canty and other music from the Evens—ends with Newby, still undefeated, heading into his 11th bout on June 27. He’s ranked out of the top 200 worldwide boxers, and remains a long way away from the kind of success that would earn him a sizeable income.
“It would be really interesting to make a longer-form film that weaves in the stories of Malik and Greg,” Avery says, though she and Centers have no plans to keep following Newby.
“It would need to be a very compelling story,” Centers says. “Something epic would have to happen.”
Out of the Basement screens backstage at the Black Cat this Sunday, June 29, at 8 p.m. $5.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post originally stated that Lime Lite was located in the basement of Arthur's Grocery. It is, in fact, in the basement of a nearby apartment building.
Photo by Lely Constantinople