TV

Joe Louis: America's Hero… Betrayed

While the film reports events of Joe Louis' life, it doesn't shape them or trace specific themes. What does emerge in this bleak outline, however, is the sense that Louis was "betrayed" by a "nation."


Joe Louis

Airtime: Saturday, 8pm ET
Cast: Joe Louis Barrow Jr., Dick Gregory, Maya Angelou, Gerald Early, Randy Roberts, Lester Rodney, Bill Cosby, Charles Rangel
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: America's Hero... Betrayed
Network: HBO
US release date: 2008-02-23
Website
Trailer
Amazon
Every man's got to figure to get beat sometime.

-- Joe Louis

"There was nobody like him on the scene." Gerald Early's succinct estimation of Joe Louis certainly sounds true. During the late 1930s and into the next decade, world heavyweight champion Louis won fight after fight, dominating a series of boxing opponents and becoming an international star, a hero for black Americans and a challenge for whites. Son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves, he was both singular and representative, a hardworking, genuinely talented athlete and a media creation.

It's hard to imagine what it was like for Joseph Louis Barrow, to exceed and yet be so burdened by expectations. "He was better than Christmas," recalls Dick Gregory in Joe Louis: America's Hero... Betrayed, premiering tonight on HBO, "'Cause on Christmas, you couldn't guarantee you were gonna get anything." Louis (who dropped the surname Barrow when he started fighting) almost always delivered, from the moment he started fighting professionally in 1934. By the following year, he had won 22 fights and lost none. This despite and probably because of tremendous odds against him: this was an era, Gregory says, when "the black man didn't have a name, it was 'Hey nigger.'" After Louis' father Munroe Barrow suffered an unspecified mental breakdown (and eventually died in Alabama's Searcy State Hospital), his mother Lillie remarried (to Patrick Brooks, who had eight children of his own) and the family moved to Detroit in 1926. Here the documentary, which is alternately engrossing, unsubtle, and sentimental, includes an archival lynching photo as a kind of shorthand for why the family joined the Great Migration north. In the city, young Louis started violin lessons, but soon, according to his friend Walter Smith, rejected this "sissy" activity and started spending his weekly quarter instead on a locker at Brewster East Side Gymnasium.

At 16, he fought his first amateur bout, and was knocked down seven times. But, says Smith, "he kept getting back up." Of 54 amateur contests, he lost only four, and, as Louis biographer Chris Mead puts it, "found confidence." On signing with manager John Roxborough and trainer Jack Blackburn in 1934, Louis was, like most boxers, considered a commodity. Coming after the sensational and controversial first black champion Jack Johnson, Louis faced continuing and even exacerbated racism -- in boxing and in the culture at large. Boxing historian Kevin Smith recalls that the management team "gave Joe Louis a set of rules... [designed] to make him appear to be the complete opposite of Jack Johnson." He could never have his picture taken with a white woman and had to appear humble at all times. He was warned, says Gregory, "If you knock a white man out and you raise your hands, it could start a riot." The film illustrates with promotional images: Louis feeding milk to a puppy, Louis posed with a glass of milk and, on his lap, a small white girl gazing at him adoringly.

Such efforts to keep Louis visibly contained look almost comical now, if not a little creepy. Then, his carefully shaped image was a matter of money (for his handlers especially) and a means to the end, a chance to compete for the championship. First, he had to fight a series of ex-champions, including the "Man Mountain" Primo Carnera (just as Italy was preparing to invade Ethiopia) and Max Baer. The string of wins made Louis a hero in black households. Charles Rangel remembers that before Louis, the only "accomplished" black men he saw were schoolteachers, the undertaker, and reverends. "As a kid," he smiles, "Joe Louis was everything. He just was the epitome of racial pride." (This even as he was, notes his son Joe Louis Barrow Jr., engaging in his own excesses, sleeping with numerous women, including whites, and spending money "like water.")

Louis' success, says Chris Mead, came with costs, including nicknames that underscored his blackness (Brown Bomber, Black Menace, Chocolate Soldier, Dark Destroyer) and media descriptions of his "laziness" and affection for watermelon. When at last Louis had his shot at the title -- against "Cinderella Man" Jimmy Braddock, at Comiskey Park in front of some 60,000 fans -- he was more than ready. His victory, beams Maya Angelou, Maya Angelou, "was vindication that we were the strongest people in the world." Still, Barrow Jr. remembers, Louis "did not feel internally that he was the heavyweight champion of the world," as he had suffered his first professional defeat at the hands of the German Max Schmeling in 1936. Though this should have led to Schmeling's bout with Braddock, but anti-Nazi protesters made this impossible. As a result, the Louis-Schmeling rematch in 1938 carried all kinds of metaphorical and political weight, as "the undercard of World War II."

The fight, at Yankee Stadium before some 80,000 people, generated immense and complicated interest. Black Americans cheered on their longtime champion (Berry Gordy says, "It was phenomenal to be black, because Joe Louis was a hero to all the people, but he was black like me") and some whites also embraced Louis as a righteous answer to Hitler's designated Aryan hero. But, as Jimmy Carter recalls in the film, "I hate to say it, but many of the white people in the South didn't want to see Joe Louis win." As Gregory explains the particular thrill of that moment -- "There was a difference in the announcer's voice. That night, it sounded like they loved him. That night he wasn't a nigger to them. Joe had become an American." -- the documentary doesn't pursue the specifics of what was plainly a terrible, unresolvable tension. Louis' win on 22 June was both brilliant and the beginning of an end.

As Schmeling, knocked out in the first round, returned to Germany in disgrace (and was sent summarily to war as a paratrooper), Louis joined the U.S. military in the "entertainment division." Starting in 19452, he traveled throughout Europe to boost morale, and, as Kevin Smith notes, heard all about the indignities of segregation on the front: "Soldiers would complain to him about the racist conditions," Smith says, and when Louis made calls, "Whatever was wrong got fixed." Such ostensible clout (no details are provided here) was short-lived. Louis also made a fateful choice concerning his finances, taking only the pay he would make as an enlisted man. Unfortunately, he continued to spend money recklessly.

As the film shows, after the Schmeling fight and four years in the military, Louis ended up owing close to $100,000 to the IRS. This debt was never repaid, and was, in fact impossible to repay, as the amount continued to swell (the IRS was eventually taxing his income at 90%). Though he worked stunt jobs during the '50s (boxing matches he should never have fought, wrestling matches, variety shows on TV), Louis died penniless at 66 in 1981. The film indicts the IRS for hounding him, and notes as well the collapse of his marriage (and two more after that), his use of drugs and alcohol, his increasing paranoia and anxiety. As his mental health failed, Barrow Jr. even resorted to having his father committed, a sad rhyme with Louis' own father's fate. While the film reports these events, it doesn't shape them or trace specific themes. What does emerge in this bleak outline, however, is the sense that Louis was "betrayed" by a "nation."

This would be the institutional nation, the white nation, of course, the nation that sustained segregation, official and not, throughout Louis' lifetime. It's not a little ironic that Ronald Reagan was the president who arranged for his burial at Arlington with full military honors, though he was not technically afforded same. Given Reagan's own policy decisions and the devastation of black communities during the 1980s, it appears that Louis remained simultaneously singular and representative in his death, as he was in his life.

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta


Keep reading... Show less
Film

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less
6

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image