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.