ave me, Joe Louis.” In his book Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. records these last words of a death row inmate who, in his final moments in the gas chamber, whispered an unanswered prayer not to any supreme being or higher power, but to a boxer from Detroit. For many, such was the status of the “Brown Bomber,” who reigned as the heavyweight champ for over a decade (1937-1948), and was an American icon for much longer. Just when and to whom Joe Louis mattered, however, varied throughout his career.
As Steve James’ Joe and Max illustrates, it’s a fine line that separates fame from infamy. The second titular star is Max Schmeling (Til Schweiger), a German heavyweight who defeated Louis in 1936 but was embarrassed in their 1938 rematch after a first round knockout. At a basic level, the film traces a growing friendship between the rivals as they gain one another’s respect both in and out of the ring. Much more interesting, though, is Joe and Max‘s meditation on the space these celebrity athletes occupied for their respective societies, serving as reluctant folk heroes and symbols for their nations.
The film chronicles Louis’ (Leonard Roberts) rise to fame in all its ambivalence. As a black heavyweight, Louis is roundly jeered by white boxing fans (who attend his matches) and wildly cheered by black fans (in Harlem, crowding around a radio to listen to his fights). Those African Americans who can afford to attend are segregated in the back of the arena, cheering their hero from a distance.
The publicity that Louis manages to garner is racially coded as well. In one scene, Louis poses for photographers as he eats a plate of fried chicken prepared by his wife, Marva (Siena Goines). Rather than asking about his upcoming fights, one photographer requests a shot of Louis eating watermelon. As his celebrity escalates, Louis is increasingly a public target for belittling stereotypes.
In the face of white America’s hostility, though, Louis moves through the ranks to challenge Schmeling for a shot at the title in 1936. While not mentioned by the film, this is the same year that Jesse Owens defeats the much heralded German athletes at the Berlin Olympics, thwarting Hitler’s plans to flaunt Aryan racial supremacy on a global stage. Despite the rise of the Nazis, though, the German Schmeling emerges in the film as a U.S. fan favorite against Louis in their first fight, as chants of “Maxi! Maxi!” propel him to victory. Skin color takes precedence over the affiliations of nationality and ideology as Louis is defeated and demoralized.
Although Schmeling wins the fight, behind-the-scenes negotiations award the title shot to Louis instead, and he wins the belt by defeating James Braddock in 1937. The stage is set for a Louis-Schmeling rematch, which comes in 1938. In the meantime, Nazi aggression has intensified, as has the U.S. backlash against Schmeling, who is propped up by Hitler and Joseph Goebbels as a symbol of Nazi supremacy. Louis now finds himself in the unfamiliar role of fan favorite, as 70,000 attend the rematch at Yankee Stadium. Louis famously batters Schmeling with a first round knockout, retaining his title to the delight of “all Americans,” who see the fight as a national victory as the two countries speed toward war.
Joe and Max goes on to chronicle the differing fortunes of the two fighters after this fight. Louis emerges as an American hero and is shown encouraging U.S. troops as they prepare for war: “We’re on God’s side,” he tells them. Schmeling returns to Germany disgraced and eventually serves as a paratrooper in the German army. After the war, the fighters’ fortunes both turn again, as Louis becomes bogged down with tax debt and infidelity, while Schmeling is picked by Coca-Cola to be a well-paid spokesman for the German market.
While Louis and Schmeling’s alternating fortunes present a compelling narrative and structural contrast through the film, their similarity is more striking. Both are swept up in their respective nationalistic fervors and become reluctant representatives for attendant ideologies. For Louis’ part, he becomes a cheerleader, in essence, for the same country that segregates and stereotypes his race.
As well, the film repeatedly emphasizes that Schmeling was no Nazi. He is shown with Jewish friends and his American manager, Joe Jacobs (David Paymer), is Jewish. In one scene, he’s coerced by Nazi officials into signing his name to a book that lauds Aryan athletic superiority. Like Louis, Schmeling becomes the embodiment of a national ethos despite his own misgivings.
The point made is that, as top athletes, Louis and Schmeling are ready-made symbols. Whatever their political points of view (Schmeling is here more conflicted about his role than Louis), their celebrity status attracts the attention of millions and makes them easy and effective mouthpieces for national propaganda. The specter of war only heightens this effect.
Decades later, war looms on the current horizon. In our context, Joe and Max reveals a telling shift in the functions of popular athletes in wartime. The worlds of politics and athletics have clearly separated since the 1930s, with most athletes today conspicuous in their lack of commentary on anything remotely political (see Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Shaquille O’Neal, etc.).
One exception to this practice (and maybe an explanation for it) is Toni Smith, a Manhattanville College basketball player who has been booed and harassed both on the court and off for turning her back on the U.S. flag during the pre-game anthem. Protests like Smith’s are rare, however. And athletes even more rarely appear as national spokespeople. Cheerleading is left to the politicians and pundits, with athletes performing a sideshow deployed to distract the public from matters of national security and policy, rather than address them.
At the same time, today’s athletes aren’t often expected to be role models for the country’s “youth,” in part because they have so vocally rejected the role. While both Louis and Schmeling were useful mouthpieces for their respective countries and models for proper behavior, now, athletes endorse little more than commercial products. An inverse relationship has resulted: as financial stakes rise, the willingness of the sporting world to take any kind of substantive public stand decreases.
Indeed, today’s athletes might appreciate the complications represented by Joe and Max, specifically complications of propaganda, patriotism, and nationalism, both at home and abroad. For Louis and for Schmeling alike, the causes they come to embody are not necessarily extensions of their personal convictions and often direct contradictions of their core beliefs. The film thus becomes a caution concerning the deceptive and manufactured nature of nationalist rhetoric. In this era of flag-waving and chest-thumping, Joe and Max‘s message is as succinct as it is relevant. A boxer, in fact, would say it best: keep your guard up.