Joe Louis: America's Hero ... Betrayed

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8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23
HBO

While it grows a bit too maudlin and rah-rah as it winds down, this 75-minute profile of the great American heavyweight champ and icon Joe Louis connects like an uppercut to the jaw.

"Joe Louis: America's Hero ... Betrayed" doesn't necessarily bring any new issues to light, but the depth of the American government's hounding and ruination of such a heroic figure is burnished to a disturbing, shameful sheen in this exceptional, definitive and greatly detailed biopic.

"Louis" tells the chronological tale (one of rags-to-riches-to-rags) of Joseph Louis Barrow, the grandson of slaves whose devastating talents with his fists transformed the Brown Bomber into America's first true crossover athlete in the 1930s and '40s in advance of Jackie Robinson's busting of baseball's color barrier. His strength and success united the black community like no human ever has before or since, and his one-round knockout of Germany's Max Schmeling in 1938 (avenging a defeat two years earlier) was one of the most monumental events in sports history -- seen as nothing less than the victory of democracy over Nazism.

But as we find here, Louis ultimately would be punished by his country for his patriotism and loyalty. He sacrificed four of his best pugilistic years to serve the U.S. Army cause during World War II, an act that would land him in a financial quagmire from which he never emerged. He was forever hounded by the IRS, forced to fight well past his prime, perpetually humiliated in trash-sport exhibitions and made to scavenge throughout his later years as a singularly pathetic figure. He died penniless at 66 in 1981 with his pride having taken the worst beating of all.

Resonant voices -- including activist Dick Gregory, poet Maya Angelou, Bill Cosby, Congressman Charles Rangel and Louis' son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr. -- lend candor and insight into what emerges as a distinctly American tragedy, one that could and should have been prevented.

The sad message, as infuriating as it is clear, is that being the "good Negro" amid the institutional racism of the 20th century was less a survival mechanism than a ticket to obscurity and despair.
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