America's Hero... Betrayed
- Buy the DVD
All photos © HBO
Reviewed by John Paulsen
’m in my 30s, and prior to getting a review copy of HBO’s new documentary, “Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed” (debuting February 23 at 8PM EST), I had heard the name and knew he was a great boxer, but I didn’t know anything else about him. This 75-minute doc goes into great detail about Louis’ meteoric rise in the world of professional boxing, and his eventual fall from grace. Louis died in 1981, so other than a few clips of old interviews, we don’t hear much from the man himself. The film features historians, biographers, friends and family, who paint a broad picture by recounting their memories of Louis’ life. Even familiar faces like Bill Cosby and Jimmy Carter pop in to relate their stories of the affect Louis had on their lives.
The film doesn’t spend much time on Louis’ childhood other than to mention that he was one of eight children who grew up poor. His grandmother gave him money for violin lessons, but after a while he used the money for boxing lessons instead. Needless to say, it paid off. The 1930s were a difficult time for a black man to make it in the sport. Jack Johnson, who was the first African-American heavyweight champion (and a notoriously controversial public figure), had rubbed white America the wrong way, so, 30 years later during the Great Depression, the odds were still stacked against Louis.
Wisely, the film spends most of its time detailing Louis’ professional career, including his two fights against Max Schmeling (a German fighter who was a favorite of Adolf Hitler), and his title fight against heavyweight champ James J. Braddock. Louis lost his first fight with Schmeling and the doc delves a bit into the strategy that the German used to beat him. No boxing film would be complete without actual footage from the fights, and “America’s Hero” has plenty to work with.
For a period, Joe Louis was on the top of the world, but like many stars, he was destined to fall. Louis didn’t do a very good job of managing his finances, but while he was in his prime he was making so much money it didn’t matter. When World War II started, Louis wanted to help his country, so he enlisted in the army and was sent all over the world to entertain the troops (and was paid a soldier’s salary). Louis failed to curb his spending, so when the war was over, Louis had run up a large debt to his manager and to the IRS. It took decades of meaningless fights, endorsements and countless demeaning gigs to finally pay off that debt. That’s where the word “betrayed” comes in. The government used Louis to keep up morale during World War II, and didn’t cut him any slack when it was tax time.
People credit Jackie Robinson for breaking through the barriers that stood between blacks and sports in the middle of the 20th century, but Joe Louis was the first African-American athlete to be adored by both black and white sports fans -- a full decade earlier. “Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed” is a worthwhile glimpse into a star’s life, and it also serves as a valuable lesson of how fleeting both fame and fortune can be.