He's not old enough to remember Joe Louis, but Judge Clark Douglas once met Evander Holyfield in a fast food restaurant. True story.
"He was a credit to his race…the human race."—Jimmy Cannon
Joe Louis: America's Hero…Betrayed is a 75-minute documentary that aired on HBO in February of 2008, as a part of HBO's Black History Month programming. The documentary attempts to provide an uplifting, insightful, and balanced look at the life of famed boxer Joe Louis over the course of a somewhat brief running time, and it more or less succeeds.
As time is of the essence, the documentary quickly skims over Louis' childhood and moves right into his career as a professional boxer. There had been successful black boxers prior to Louis (most notably Jack Johnson), but none had been permitted to actually compete professionally against white boxers. Louis was the first person to change that. This section is simultaneously sad and inspiring. While Louis' accomplishments were certainly noteworthy, he was forced to alter his behavior in order to win the acceptance of the public. "Essentially," narrator Liev Schrieber informs us, "He was trained to act white." No matter how embarrassing things got for Louis, he always retained a sense of quiet dignity and seemed to recognize that what he was achieving was important enough to make the trials worth the pain.
The public gradually grew fond of Louis, and he soon became America's hero when he fought and defeated Max Schmelling, the German boxer. For a brief moment, Americans didn't see a white man and a black man in the ring…they saw a Nazi and an American. While I'm personally a little disturbed at the way many people have viewed boxing as a violent extension of racial and political battles, there is no denying the historical importance of this event. However, I don't think that victory in the ring was the high point of Louis' life. We learn that Louis gave up a substantial income in order to accept a soldier's pay in the military, serving his country for four years in an attempt to boost the morale of the troops. This is quite remarkable, even more so when you consider that Louis did this at a time when the military still treated blacks as inferior people.
Louis made a huge sacrifice, a considerably bigger sacrifice than he thought he was making. When WWII ended, Louis' serious financial difficulties began, and he continued to endure persecution at the hands of the IRS for the rest of his life. Louis' contributions to his country were not considered in any way, and the debts he had piled up (often accidentally) before and during the war more or less ruined his life. The documentary offers a heartbreaking and touching portrait of Louis over the course of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. He stooped to exploiting his celebrity in every possible way, anything to stay afloat, and somehow kept himself from wallowing in self-pity through it all.
The documentary compiles interviews with a wide variety of individuals. The usual sportswriters, biographers, and family members are on hand, along with notable folks such as Bill Cosby, Jerry Lewis, Maya Angelou, and Jimmy Carter. There's a lot of insightful commentary here, as these individuals attempt to give modern viewers a feel of Joe Louis' impact on American society from era to era. The documentary focuses on three different things. First, the career of Joe Louis as an athlete. Second, the impact of Louis on America, specifically the black community. Third, the painful private life of Louis. There's a very nice balance between these elements.
There are problems, though. The doc occasionally goes just a little too far in its attempts to idolize Louis. Yes, he was taken advantage of quite a lot, but his own personal mistakes are merely hinted at and brushed over. Additionally, I'm a little bothered by the fact that the doc seems to support the idea of boxing as a means for people to vicariously live out violent fantasies. The film mocks the sport of wrestling as dumb and demeaning, and yet endlessly promotes the sport of boxing as noble and heroic. This film buys into the Rocky portrayal of boxing; I personally subscribe to the portrait shown in The Set-Up and Raging Bull. I am quite certain that there are boxing fans reading this that will disagree with me. Let it be said that I liked this documentary, and I imagine boxing fans will like it even more than I did.
The transfer is fine, though we're more or less switching between standard talking-heads shots and source footage of wildly varying quality. The sound is fine, though I think they probably should have turned the orchestral score by Brian Keane down a notch or two. Keane's score is very attractive on it's own, but in context it seems a little too earnest. There are no extras of any kind included.
Despite some minor flaws, Joe Louis: American Hero…Betrayed is
a solid and professional documentary that makes an engaging a viewing experience
whether you're a boxing fan or not. Not guilty.
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