Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Joe Louis: American Hero … Betrayed

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: HBO Documentary Revisits America’s Mistreatment of Patriotic Pugilist

On January 10, 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor, Heavyweight Champ Joe Louis (1914-1981) enlisted in the Army at the height of his boxing career. Not only did he volunteer to serve in a still segregated army, but he donated the entire purses of his prior two purse to the war effort.
That ill-advised altruistic overture would come back to bite The Brown Bomber in the butt, because the country he loved would never love him back. Instead of appreciating the fact that he had taken a pay cut from six-figures per bout down to a GI’s salary of about $50 a month, the IRS decided that Joe still had to pay taxes on the $200,000 he had so generously given the government.
Meanwhile, his financial manager, Mike Jacobs, was no help either. He so mismanaged the champ’s finances for the next four years that Joe was an additional quarter million dollars in debt by the time he was honorably discharged from the military in 1945. Things got so bad, that the IRS even seized the $64,000 Louis had put into a trust fund for his kids.
Broke and desperate, Joe ended up continuing to fight in the ring far past his prime, since he didn’t have any other way to make the sort of money the U.S. was charging him interest on and hounding him for. Afterall, he was born in rural Alabama the son of sharecroppers and the grandchild of slaves, and he had no formal education to fall back on. So, after he could no longer box, he had to turn to professional wrestling to make a few bucks.
To add insult to injury, when he died, his widow was denied permission to bury her patriotic veteran husband in Arlington National Cemetery until the president intervened on her behalf. And she was only able to afford to give him a fitting send off because Joe’s former foe, Max Schmeling, offered to pay for the funeral.
This disgraceful chapter of U.S. history is the recounted in Joe Louis: American Hero … Betrayed, a heartbreaking HBO documentary. Given that we presently have an African-American leading in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, it’s fitting reflect upon how far we’ve come since these sort of racist shenanigans were par for the course during the heyday of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
Perhaps the best way he ought to be remembered is how sportswriter eulogized him: “Joe Louis, a credit to his race – the human race.”

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated TV-PG for violence and adult content.
Running time: 75 minutes
Studio: HBO-TV

Joe Louis: American Hero … Betrayed premieres on HBO at 8 PM (EST) on Saturday, February 23. (check local listings)

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