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HBO presents
Joe Louis: America's Hero...Betrayed (2008)

"Joe Louis was everything. He was just the epitome of racial pride."
- Rep. Charles Rangel

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: August 01, 2008

Stars: Joe Louis, Charles Rangel, Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Maya Angelou, Gerald Early, Max Schmeling, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Lewis, Gay Talese, Rocky Marciano
Other Stars: Liev Schreiber
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:14m:49s
Release Date: July 29, 2008
UPC: 883929025251
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

HBO goes a few rounds with one of the pre-eminent figures in American sports in this documentary, which is a pretty fair biography of the man—it presents the facts quite efficiently, but is much better with history than psychology. That is, especially for those born after Joe Louis' reign as heavyweight champion of the world, this is a fine introduction to the man and his times, but doesn't really give us a sense of just what drove him.

Born Joseph Louis Barrow, the grandson of slaves, he jettisoned his last name when he went into the ring—his family's story is emblematic of its time, as the Barrows moved to Detroit, lived hand to mouth, and young Joe took the spare change that his mother saved for his violin lessons and spent it on boxing lessons instead. Louis was fearsome in the ring, and as he moved to the top of the boxing pyramid faced not only the fierce institutional racism of his time, but also had to contend with the legacy of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight champion widely reviled by much of white America. Louis learned to answer slights only with silence, to let his actions speak for themselves—it was a posture that made him a great source of black pride, that later led to his acceptance by whites as well as blacks, especially when he took on Max Schmeling, Adolf Hitler's golden boy, and that later still became derided (somewhat unfairly) by a subsequent generation (most notably Muhammad Ali), who saw Louis' going along to get along as the worst sort of Uncle Tom act.

The film is full of archival clips, and some great new interviews—especially poignant are the recollections of Louis' son, and you get a sense of just how much pride the African-American community took in Louis' accomplishments when you look at the roster of those who speak here about his influence on them in their formative years: Maya Angelou, Charles Rangel, Berry Gordy, Bill Cosby. And Louis' appeal wasn't strictly to his own community, as glowing memories from, among others, Jimmy Carter and Jerry Lewis (no relation) attests.

The notion of betrayal, as suggested by the film's title, is a little overblown—Louis was a great rallying point for national pride just before and during World War II, but after the war, through mismanagement, obliviousness, and overconfidence in the continuing power of his celebrity, he spent himself into oblivion and neglected to pay his taxes. He was dogged by the IRS for years—there's the suggestion that Internal Revenue was malicious and cruel with Louis, and they well may have been, but I don't know that that excuses one from failing to file by April 15. Anyway, his last years were more of a slow, sad decay than a betrayal, as he did anything to make a few dollars: professional wrestling, endorsing soft drinks, even working as a Caesars Palace greeter to chase every last buck. He died in 1981, after the downward spiral became even more severe, fueled by drugs and paranoia. But this film helps us remember him at his best, in the ring, giving it to an opponent in the days when boxing was a morality play and was at the center of American sporting life.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Pretty fair transfer; the archival footage varies in quality, and the newly shot interviews can be a little too contrasty.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Liev Schreiber is mightily sonorous on the narration track; the transfer is clear throughout.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Only a dozen chapter stops.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

A reasonable, brief overview of an enormously important figure in American sports history, but one lacking the penetrating insights of the best sports documentaries.


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